The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted almost everything we believed was normal. Until February 2020, we believed that work from home was nothing less than a luxury, and the idea of education going completely online a fantasy. The pandemic changed all that.
So, while the past decade did see the rise of the online education or the EdTech industry, when schools and colleges shut down almost overnight due to the pandemic, the country witnessed a massive boom in the Edtech sector in a matter of weeks.
Two years on, as more people in the country get vaccinated, and schools and colleges reopen gradually, the edtech industry is faced with a billion dollar question: is this level of growth sustainable?
The edtech advantage
Talking about the fast-changing trends in the edtech sector, P N Sudarshan, Partner and TMT Industry Leader, Deloitte India says, “Traditionally, edtech companies in India focused on K-12 supplementary education, competitive exam preparation, and online certifications for students and working professionals. Covid-19 pandemic catalyzed a faster than anticipated digital adoption and heralding the next phase of education in India where digital first learning is directly integrated into school (and university) curriculum. The National Education Policy has also provided for deeper technology thrust into the mainstream education program.”
Aayur Kaul, Market Head, Skillshare India, notes that one critical aspect here is that despite having 1.5 million schools and close to 40,000 colleges, the quality of education and employability of India’s graduates is of great concern. For this very reason, the growth of the edtech sector is largely driven by non-academic courses in tier 2 and 3 cities. What’s pivotal here is that these are the areas in India where employability is a big concern and the demographic is looking for simple and easy ways to upskill,” he says.
There are several other obvious benefits of online learning. With the emergence of edtech, teachers/mentors and the students (including professional learners) are adopting a more practical manner of imparting knowledge. At the elementary or high school level, there are many companies now that are offering varied courses through digital platforms such as coding, soft skills and even space science, apart from imparting extracurricular activities such as music, yoga and dance and many more through digital platforms.
Mridul Ranjan Sahu, Co-Founder at CuriousJr. says that in this virtual learning method, lesson plans are no longer extensive process maps on paper, students’ inventory management is no longer restricted to stocky record books, and lessons no longer necessitate the teacher’s or student’s physical presence. Furthermore, bulky books and lengthy theoretical lectures are no longer required.
Sudarshan mentions that from a vendor perspective, market leaders managed to secure bulk of the fresh capital, driven by the market leadership in growing segments, scale, and their ability to capture the demand generated due to the pandemic.
“Flush with this liquidity, the sector is also witnessing considerable consolidation activity, as the market moves towards the new equilibrium,” he says.
The Power of technology
The edtech sector, as experts believe can continue to become sustainable with many long term benefits with improved and appropriate tools and methodology. Educators are already using technology to connect with students from different parts of the country, requiring minimal effort and expense on both sides of the device.
Manan Khurma, Founder & Chairman at Cuemath believes that the EdTech revolution is growing and today, there are innovative techniques that combine classrooms with digital learning tools that help in increasing students’ engagement through personalised approach to learning. “This technological advancement is highly beneficial as it helps to make education more accessible while promoting peer-to-peer engagement over classroom sessions, which can result in better learning outcomes,” he says.
Khurma also adds that there is a significant shift from the content era to the engagement era, due to which gamification has become an integral part of teaching. This has not only increased the level of interest in the students, but alsoenabled them to learn at their own pace leading to maximum retention.
“Data-driven technologies and content analytics can be further used to assess the understanding of students, identify gaps in learning and provide solutions to the students based on their individual requirements,” he informs.
Praneet Agarwal, Co-Founder, WeSkill, believes edtech is the need of the hour to create equal learning opportunities, especially with AI-powered digital learning that will make learning more inclusive in the future. He says, “Technologies such as AI and ML as game changers for learners to help in leapfrog limitations of traditional educational infrastructure and make high quality and interactive learning avenues accessible to all.”
Sahu too believes, advanced tools and technologies will continue to drive the edtech boom. “Over the internet, we are already witnessing seminars, educational meet-ups, conferences, parent-teacher meetings, and classes. To disseminate material, a variety of methods and channels are used, with the learning component at the core.”
Now, more than ever, games and simulations are being used as educational tools to make the learning more immersive and entertaining. Gamification is helping educators, as well as learners massively in interacting and responding to new concepts – which is sometimes very difficult to achieve in the classroom scenario.
Further, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and extended reality (XR) have the potential to truly disrupt higher education across the world. They are already becoming more cost-effective and more reliable as technologies and their applicability across all segments of education have fantastic use cases, as Khurma says that a shift to hybrid classrooms along with the use of advanced technologies in learning such as AI/ML, AR and VR can transform the EdTech revolution and sustain it for the future generations.
Sahu adds that when schools reopen after a pandemic, the trend will be toward more usage of technology and app-based learning services. It has enabled teachers to use a multi-model approach to learning, which combines audio-visual, textbooks, and experimental kits. This enables them to provide learning solutions that meet global standards.
“As more and more education resources are digitized, we would probably see different models of delivery and greater flexibility in learning. The institutions need to continuously invest in pedagogy and teachers training to utilize the digital platform and deal with hybrid models. India is a bigger market at the bottom of the pyramid, and it’s imperative for ed-tech companies to provide quality services at affordable pricing to stay continuously relevant,” says Sudarshan.
“Considering the diverse nature of the Indian market and the long-term growth potential of digital learning in India, multiple successful models are likely to emerge and the space for niche segments continue to thrive,” he adds.
However, there are obstacles to overcome in the online education sector and edtech leaders should give a thought to overcome these challenges in order to make the sector more successful and sustainable.
As Sahu observes, “While it may be easier for high school and older students to concentrate and understand everything online because they understand the concept of self-learning, younger students find it extremely difficult to concentrate and understand everything online due to a variety of factors such as small screens, constant sitting in front of a device, eye strains, and even comprehension.”
“Additionally, some students who do not have dependable internet connections or technology find it difficult to engage in digital learning. This divide exists across nations and within socioeconomic levels within countries, he adds.
Leave alone internet connectivity, in a country like India a vast majority of the population do not have access to a laptop, or a smart mobile devices. It is critical that tech vendors and edtech providers come up with methods for making e-learning more dynamic and engaging where students are able to take the initiative, step ahead, and engage with their peers and teachers – in a seamless manner. In that sense, edtech is extremely nascent and has a long way to go.
Prof. Srinath Srinivasa, Professor & Dean (R&D) at IIIT Bangalore too believes that while online learning is a key need for societies in the midst of large-scale changes and makes education more accessible, available, and personalized, its sustainability is a major challenge.
“Online learning witness large amounts of attrition and learner dis-engagement as they are mostly based upon replicating conventional learning environments. For instance, online lectures are more strenuous to both teachers and students, given the dearth of verbal and visual signals required to promote engagement online. Similarly, online proctoring of timed exams incorporates intrusive mechanisms to safeguard against cheating, leading to privacy concerns; and to taking examination environments further away from realistic professional challenges that students are meant to be preparing for,” he says.
According to Prof. Srinivasa, “These challenges are increasingly acknowledged in the learning science community. New paradigms have started to exploring smarter ways of representing learning spaces, data-driven mechanisms to assess learner progress, and rich visual formalisms to represent learner competency. It remains to be seen whether any of these new paradigms will end up replacing and revolutionizing learning in fundamental ways.”
A positive outlook
Despite the myriad challenges that need to be addressed, the overall outlook is positive. Just like industries across the world are shifting online, the edtech sector too will continue to benefit from this mega shift with analysts forecasting a stellar growth for the coming year.
According to India Brand Equity Foundation, the country’s online education market stood at US$ 247 million in 2016 with 1.57 million paid users; is expected to expand at a 52% CAGR to reach US$ 1.96 billion in 2021-end driven by increased consumer adoption, improvements in offerings and changes in business models. The internet user base is also expected to reach 735 million by 2021, driven by the youth population, highlighting a positive outlook for online education in India.
Kaul states that if online learning platforms can achieve actionable outcomes on the quality of learning and customer satisfaction while having a positive impact on employability, it is a sure-fire way of maintaining long-term growth. He believes, if these platforms generate superior quality content and are integrated into the education system and upskilling programs in enterprises, the industry can grow sustainably.
“This is when the bubble won’t burst, and may actually become the solution to the employability crisis — be it for gig workers or those seeking to upskill and become entrepreneurs of tomorrow,” he mentions.
The rapidly-changing learning and technology environment has accelerated the edtech space more than ever before and the trend is likely to stay, believe experts. While edtech is set to grow exponentially in 2022 and over the course of the decade, it needs to be seen how companies interpret learning experiences with the use of right technologies, business models and learning mechanics to help drive greater engagement and growth.