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Published on: Sept. 7, 2020, 12:03 a.m.
Has the education business changed forever?
  • Back to the future

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

Had the new education policy (announced around the end of July) been unveiled at a usual time (in the non-Covid era), it would have surprised many due to its dominant focus on online education. Among other things, it proposes setting up virtual labs in schools, encourages students to extensively use e-platforms like SWAYAM and DIKSHA, and talks of bringing in an online training regime for teachers. It also facilitates the creation of a dedicated National Education Technology Forum where ideas would be exchanged to use to the hilt advanced technological components like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain or Internet of Things (IoT), for education modules in the not-too-distant future.

However, the online leanings of the new education policy (released after over three decades) had hardly any surprise elements for anyone when it was finally made public. With the Indian education system switching over to online mode since the beginning of the first round of lockdown in March, there is a larger consensus now that online learning will be a critical pillar of the larger blended learning in the future.

Talk to anybody in education circles, and they will tell you that this is the moment of critical churning for every stakeholder in the fray – ranging from KG classes to post-graduate, corporate training and vocational courses. While it is forcing the well-established brick and mortar institutions to add an effective technology component to their services, for those who have been quietly taking a position as online education specialists in the market, tomorrow has arrived sooner than expected. And, therefore, unprecedented activity has been witnessed at the stage vis-à-vis strategic investments, buyouts, etc, in the marketplace.

“More than 35 crore students and 1.08 crore teachers across 15 lakh schools, 1,028 universities, 41,901 colleges and 10,726 standalone institutes are unable to attend classes due to the nationwide closure of education institutes,” Union education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, explains the impact of Covid-19 on regular education in these words.

Those in the education circle will vouch for the fact that the government has also acted promptly as a facilitator in giving the go-ahead to top universities in the country to float new online courses, apart from launching new programmes like eVidya. And there seems to be a presumption that even if the world returns to pre-Covid days, online teaching will not only stay but grow further and find a distinctive space for itself on the larger educational platform.
 
Surviving the tide

But there is another, serious, dimension to the issue. While in a quantitative sense, online education could well mean a major leap (imagine a preparatory test institute teacher simultaneously reaching out to hundreds of students in an online setup as against a select group of 40-50 in a typical classroom environment), the quality it can impart vis-à-vis the traditional mode is being questioned by some analysts.

“This is the first growth wave for the online education segment in the country. And it hasn’t readily evolved but has rather been thrust upon most stakeholders who are looking at it as the proverbial straw which will help them survive the tide. But soon you will hear questioning voices on the kind of prominence it should be given, considering its serious limitations on direct interface between teachers and students,” says a noted educationist who is presently attached to a private university in Delhi-NCR in a consulting capacity.

Apart from a handful of dedicated tech-enabled players across various categories who have cropped up in recent years imagining a windfall arriving somewhere around the middle of the next decade, the majority of players in the fray (primarily brick and mortar campuses with little supplementary online offerings added to their portfolio) have been forced to quickly build strength in the remote connectivity vertical.

“If we had not started Zoom classrooms in April (just at the beginning of the new session), I don’t think the majority of parents would have paid the first semester fee. That would have meant the management facing problems with paying the staff on roll,” says the principal of a renowned Delhi school on assurance of anonymity. The statement subtly underlines how critical the online offering has become to regular schools for their own survival during this unprecedented crisis.

In all fairness, even as online education has been on the radar of most institutes and service providers aligned to the larger education space, till recently it has not been too big a dot on the national ‘promising businesses’ chart. Observers will tell you that what is commonly recognised as online education is actually an evolved form of distance education which has been in existence since the 1980s in the country, spearheaded by IGNOU and later by other public and private institutes.

With the Internet and, later, smartphones increasingly becoming the most prominent connecting tools since the advent of the new century, online education found new expressions, with private entrepreneurship gradually making it more contemporary and adding significantly to its core identity of distance education.

In 2017-18, noted consultancy and research firm KPMG, in association with Google, published a dedicated report on online education in the country which apart from projecting future numbers, also subtly indicated broader, emerging trends. Looking at 2016 as the base year, the report maintained that online education was in a nascent stage and its market size was valued at $247 million.

Quite a small piece of the cumulative Indian education business worth a staggering $100 billion in 2016 (with 260 million students in 1.5 million schools and 27.5 million undergraduates and four million post-graduate students covered by 39,000 colleges), it was nevertheless projected to be one of the fastest growing segments, registering a hefty 50 per cent annual growth to become a nearly $2 billion business by the end of 2021. And within the online education space, the report earmarked distinctive verticals – primary and secondary supplemental education, test preparation, reskilling and online preparations, higher education, language and casual learning – as the key drivers.

In a cumulative sense, the total volume of paid users for these verticals in 2016 stood at 1.57 million, and were led by online certifications and primary and secondary supplemental education segments. This number was projected to cross 9 million by the end of 2021. The projection chart further underlined primary and secondary supplemental education and test preparation services becoming the dominant verticals, with shares of 39 and 28 per cent respectively. And in the process, each of these verticals was projected to become an over $500-million business opportunity ($773 million for primary and secondary supplemental education and $515 million for the test preparation domain).
 
Action-filled stage

The report presented by KPMG & Google earlier, seems to be a gross under-statement today with the kind of volume jump which has been seen post Covid-19. Narayanan Ramaswamy, national leader, education and skill development. KPMG in India admits the report falls short of what is going to evolve at the end of the milestone period. “That report was based on a regular growth pattern and our assessment was a hefty jump in the online education business. However, post Covid-19, things are unfolding at a pace nobody could have imagined. I would not hazard a guess on the possible worth of the online education business by the end of 2021 now, but I could tell you, the projected number of users by this date will be higher by at least two to three times,” he says. The research firm is now working on a new report expected to be released before the year-end.

Ironically, a pandemic which has destabilised normal life and economies across the planet is turning out to be quite the ticket booster for online education, as players in the fray confirm. According to Mrinal Mohit, COO, Byju’s (the country’s leading learning app for school-going children), the popular brand made all the content on its learning app completely free for students across all grades and introduced live classes as well.

“We have received an overwhelming response with an almost three-fold increase in the number of students accessing our app. Earlier, students used to spend two-three days per week on our platform. As a result of the lockdown, they are using the platform on a daily basis and spending an average of 100 minutes per day. We saw over 15 million new students access our free app during the lockdown period,” he says.

For leading players in the test preparation segment like Aakash Institute, which had added a digital wing to its portfolio much earlier, the growth in traction has been equally amazing. “We have already seen a four-fold increase in daily active users of Aakash Digital as compared to the previous year. There is a three-fold increase in daily enrolments in April 2020 as compared to the pre-lockdown period in March 2020. Paid, high-ticket Aakash Live Class users have also gone up three times from 6,800 in April 2019 to approximately 17,000 in April 2020,” says Aakash Chaudhary, director & CEO, Aakash Educational Services.

With the traction growth of popular commercial educational platforms unfolding in the metrics of time and not just high percentage, the popular theory doing the rounds in the marketplace is: what demonetisation had meant to Paytm and other digital payment entities, Covid-19 means to Edtech firms. “We had seen a parallel case in India’s demonetisation moment, where the growth of digital payments apps soared. We were on top of the pandemic situation and were one of the first to take a positive step in offering free access to our live, online classes for students across the country,” adds Vamsi Krishna, CEO & cofounder, Vedantu, which is a popular interactive, online tutoring platform.

Krishna explains the windfall for the platform in terms of an addition of 20,000 monthly paid users now as against 50,000 annually till last year. The company has just managed to raise $100 million in Series D funding which has elevated its valuation to $600 million. According to Vidyamandir CEO Vishnu Dutt Sharma (another major name in the test preparation business), the institute has gained big time with its live classes, video lectures and compact courses in recent months and it is now banking big on digital marketing expertise to further penetrate its targeted constituency.

KVS Seshasai, CEO, Kangaroo Kids Education (a Mumbai-headquartered institute, especially for pre-schoolers which has also spread its wings to other countries like Nepal, Maldives, Qatar, Dubai, etc, during the past three decades of its journey) speaks no differently in terms of how the virtual schooling programme of the institute has fared post Covid. “Our virtual schooling programme for both pre-schoolers and high schools was met with great encouragement and positivity from the parent and student fraternity.”

There is clear evidence to suggest that some of the players have, in fact, made significant, aggressive moves in this hour of crisis and have upped the ante in terms of new offerings and alignments. Take the case of Coursera, the world’s leading online learning platform, which offers over 4,200 courses in collaboration with 200 leading universities across the world. “On 12 March, we announced free access to 3,800 courses and 400 specialisations for all impacted universities and colleges through the ‘Coursera for Campus’ platform.

Over the past few months, the initiative has helped thousands of universities and colleges go online to maintain academic continuity. From India, we have received over 10,600 requests, out of which 3,652 programs have been activated across hundreds of campuses,” says Raghav Gupta, managing director, India and APAC, Coursera. With over 8 million registered learners on its platform, India is the second-largest market for Coursera, after the US. For its popular ‘Coursera for Campus’ offering in India, it has partnered with 17 institutes, including the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), and Shiv Nadar University (SNU).

The Ronnie Screwvala-led upGrad is another entity which has initiated a series of new courses in recent months, surprising everyone in the market with its quick moves. Founded in early 2015, upGrad provides online programs in the areas of data science, technology, management and law, to college students, working professionals and enterprises in collaboration with top-notch universities like IIT-Madras, IIIT-Bangalore, MICA, NMIMS Global Access, Jindal Global Law School, etc. “The ongoing global crisis calls for evolution on a recurring basis, especially amid the online education space, which seems to be the only way forward, owing to its robustness and accessibility,” Screwvala had earlier commented.
 
Government help

The rare buoyant mood witnessed in private education circles, has been boosted by immense support from the government which has given the green signal to 100 universities, allowing them to offer online courses. This was announced by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 17 May during the last of her five press conferences on the government’s relief measures for the economy.

This comes as part of the government’s new initiative to push a multi-layered digital education programme called ‘eVidya’. “This programme includes: DIKSHA (one nation-one digital platform) which will now become the nation’s digital infrastructure for providing quality e-content in school education for all the states/UTs; and TV (one class-one channel) where one dedicated channel per grade for grades one to 12 will provide access to quality educational material, etc,” explains Ramesh Pokhriyal. And some experts are ready to vouch that in terms of intention, this programme could well take online education to a new level. “This truly marks the arrival of multi-modal modules (including television and community radio) in imparting education, which is even bigger than the computer or smartphones which define online education,” opines Narayanan of KPMG.

Around the middle of June, the University Grant Commission (UGC) gave its nod to 100 top notch universities (as per the National Institutional Ranking Framework or NIRF rankings) to kick-start online courses and this is expected to result in more action. For instance, IIT-Madras has launched India’s first online BSc degree in Programming and Data Science. And on 6 July, IIT-Roorkee, in collaboration with WileyNXT, announced the launch of its ‘AI in Banking Programme’. The four-month course is India’s first-of-its-kind online programme made for existing as well as recently graduated technology and finance professionals, who aspire to build a career in AI and analytics in the banking domain.

A similar drive has also been witnessed in top-notch universities (part of the top 100 list) which now have the backing of the UGC, validating their online programmes. This simply means the addition of more magnetism to their drawing power and the resultant initiatives are expected to soon become visible. “Considering the technological churnings all around, the explosive growth pattern of online business was waiting to happen. Covid-19 may have just put it in top gear,” observes Anil Swarup, former secretary, HRD ministry.

Though the unprecedented surge triggered by what is probably the crisis of the century is likely to change the Indian education delivery system forever, the addition of new elements has certainly been far from smooth for a majority of stakeholders in the value chain, including those who are entrusted with the actual delivery responsibilities. The education circle today is full of stories where teachers, especially at the primary and secondary levels, have been asked to learn the technology at a breakneck speed.

Sunetra Pathak, a secondary level teacher with Mamasaheb Khandge English Medium School, Pune presents this tale of woe for teachers in detail saying that they have been forced to learn the basics of the virtual classroom, including understanding the technology of the Zoom application, Google Duo, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc. And even after having painstakingly surmounted these odds, the teachers, attuned to offline models, have to worry about the quality front. “We are unable to interact with our students the way we do in a classroom. We do not know whether the child is completing his classwork and homework,” she points out, while adding that conducting tests and practical exams, co-scholastic activities, team projects, sports, music, dance, etc, are also missing at the moment.

Pathak may be representing a larger emerging voice, maintaining that online education can’t match the quality deliverables of the traditional classroom model, especially at the school level. When it comes to vocational online courses, it could again lack punch, with lack of effective practical lessons. “Our experience over the last three months has allowed us to deliver over 80 per cent of our regular academic curriculum online. The only gaps are really in the practical hours students spend in the culinary courses which require our kitchen infrastructure,” explains Dilip Puri, director, Indian School of Hospitality and a hotel industry veteran. “Online education, like any other form of education, has some limitations. In the case of skill training, the importance of classroom training cannot be negated,” says Dr Manish Kumar, MD & CEO, National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), an agency closely aligned with the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. It had launched a major e-learning aggregator portal last year called eSkillIndia, which has now tied up with 25 knowledge partners and associates, including Saylor Academy, Simplilearn, IBM, TCS, UpGrad, etc.
 
Making it happen

But even with the limitations there are strong contrarian views within the education sector. First, there is the issue of adjustment to tech-driven teaching modalities. “Since the middle of March, we conducted around 6,000 hours of online teaching till the end of June and have executed parents’ meets and students’ town hall sessions – all online. Our own technology-savvy faculty has made it happen without any outside support, making use of popular available platforms like Zoom or Google Meet. It is quite doable and I think, private institutes have shown more agility in adopting it,” says Dr Indu Shahani, noted educationist and president & chair of ISDI (School of Design & Innovation).

And when it comes to quality of education, Narayanan of KPMG makes his point bluntly. “How many Indian offline institutes can really boast of providing education on par with the best in the world? Imagine what could this lead to – international institutes opening up their courses for Indian students at significantly lower rates vis-à-vis what they charge for the traditional campus classroom and Indian institutes too providing this kind of service for foreign students,” he says.

A senior faculty member of a leading private university based in Greater Noida, however, says established private institutes are somewhat perplexed at this stage in terms of how to harness this emerging hybrid model. “For private institutes, courses delivered in a campus environment are a high-margin proposition. If the same course is delivered online, the pricing advantage can’t be sustained. So, for them, it would mean moving from value to volume,” he points out.

But there are those who strongly believe that the future normal educational regime (minus corona and the restrictions imposed by it) would mostly comprise of a hybrid formula where the online constituent would play a robust role. “The future lies in the blended learning approach where the candidate undergoes a mix of online and offline training. In such cases, theory sessions may be taken up online and the candidates may come to classrooms only for practical sessions or assessments,” says Kumar of NSDC.

And this is a point which even some of the most popular online brands are not refuting. “The current scenario is proving to be an inflection point in the field of education and on the other side of the crisis we can expect the rise of a blended model of education. The proliferation of smart devices coupled with the democratisation of the Internet will quicken this process,” says Mohit of Byju’s. And with this understanding, different online players across the educational value chain are mooting their future expansion plans, promising this space will be extremely lively for quite a long time.

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