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Ready, Click, Learn

Ready, Click, Learn

Online learning is emerging as the 'next big thing,' with many calling it the new e-commerce sector. The challenge is to ensure the momentum continues post Covid

Illustrations by Nilanjan Das Illustrations by Nilanjan Das

"We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

This quote by John W. Gardner — one of the giants of public service, philanthropy and education — came to mind when the Covid-19 pandemic forced educational institutions across the world to shut down almost overnight.

That, in turn, dramatically impacted how education was imparted and forced a shift to e-learning on digital platforms. Educational institutions rapidly switched to the digital medium, adapting to online forms of teaching and learning so that students wouldn’t miss out on education. This surging market demand created a never-before-seen opportunity for edtech to disrupt the education sector using technology.

Reams have been written over the last year-and-a-half about how the pandemic led to an acceleration in the adoption of education technologies, giving a major boost to the edtech sector. It’s undoubtedly true that edtech firms have a big opportunity, but the challenge will be to maintain this momentum going forward. Technology has made education effective and accessible, leading to a massive surge in users and increasing demand for digital curricula. But edtech will need to evolve from the quick-fix solutions created to weather the pandemic to a longer-term vision with innovations to scale further.

Sunrise sector

The edtech sector remains attractive as new waves of Covid-19 infections further delay the opening up of the country, not to mention schools and colleges. Edtech was growing strongly even before the pandemic, with global venture capital investments in the sector reaching $7 billion in 2019, a 1,300 per cent increase over $500 million in 2010, according to a report by Deloitte. However, the pandemic opened the floodgates. In 2020 alone, the sector attracted venture capital investment worth more than $10 billion. Yuanfudao, a Beijing-based K-12 online platform, alone raised $1 billion in a Series G round in March 2020, the biggest amount ever raised in a single round by any edtech globally. The grass was just as green in India as domestic edtech start-ups collectively raised $2.22 billion last year, a four-fold jump from $553 million in 2019.

Edtech in India will continue to attract large sums of capital even when schools and colleges reopen in the months to come. Online learning is emerging as the ‘next big thing,’ with many calling it the new e-commerce sector. There is also government support via policy reforms and the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 advances this through a transformation of the Indian education system. The online learning market for Class 1-12 is projected to increase more than six-fold to $1.7 billion over the next year, while the post-K-12 market is expected to grow nearly four-fold to touch $1.8 billion. All the signs — a huge market of more than 300 million consumers, galloping revenues and improving bottom lines — are flashing green. No wonder then that investors are lining up to book their seat on the edtech bullet train before it sets off and catches speed.

Innovate to elevate

What’s next? With vaccination programmes progressing in India and around the world, the focus is on the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. As schools and colleges reopen physical classrooms, edtech players will see the money flow ebb. Their challenge will be to remain relevant and continue to grow in the post-pandemic world.

Edtech firms will have to innovate to address the issues faced by both teachers and learners. They should focus on making the e-learning process engaging, ensuring personal attention and two-way interaction, bringing in practical aspects to make learning effective, as well as ensuring a feeling of community.

We will continue to see the boundaries blurring, not just between face-to-face and remote learning, but also between formal and informal learning as well as teachers and learners. The accessibility, affordability and flexibility of e-learning mean the learning process can now be a lifelong one. Even those in rural and remote areas can now access online platforms. In fact, some edtech players are rebuilding their platform infrastructure on a light cloud-computing model so that consumers from rural areas do not have to compromise on the quality of their online education. The affordability also increases as one saves on transport, accommodation and other costs related to a traditional institution-based learning model. Online learning also offers one the flexibility to complete a course at one’ s own pace and convenience.

Going forward, there will be a shift from recorded lectures to live sessions. We will see blended learning in flipped classrooms that combine face-to-face teaching with technology. Learning anytime, anywhere is the new mantra in a dynamic world where learning and gaining new skills is a lifelong process. Artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology-enhanced learning modes will enable personal learning experiences that are indispensable to the lifelong learning necessary to succeed in a knowledge economy. It is here that edtech for adults can be a catalyst for India’s workforce through vocational skilling and higher education.

This shift — from a traditional learning pathway to a lifelong one — is an opportunity for edtech players to move beyond their core. It offers them a wider addressable market as they expand their presence to the post-K-12 market, with test preparation, higher education, as well as technical and vocational skills. Players catering to the post-K-12 segment will also create an impact by serving the K-12 market.

Global wingspan

With online learning no longer an option but a necessity, Indian edtech firms have the opportunity to go deep in the domestic market as well as expand transnationally. The idiosyncrasies of the domestic market offer tremendous growth opportunities. Over 35 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population is under 15 years of age, with a poor student-teacher ratio not just in the K-12 but also in the post-K-12 segment. Another factor is that, just like the pandemic, natural disasters also disrupt the traditional learning process. In these situations, online learning can help ensure continuity in the teaching process. With the expanding digital infrastructure backed by affordable smartphones and data, edtech firms can promote deeper penetration of technologically backed alternative modes of education and skilling in India.

We will also see more Indian edtech firms targeting global plays as they are no longer restricted to national borders. They are spreading their wings to teach the world, and not just in the global K-12 segment but also in higher education. The opportunity is especially strong in the case of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, with the convergence of edtech and STEM pedagogy. Technologies such as AI, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can help deliver hands-on and collaborative training to students living in even the remotest areas.

Moreover, it is not only the lure of higher revenue that is attracting edtech players to global markets but also the fact that the domestic market is getting increasingly more competitive. There are more than 4,500 Indian edtech startups today but the fact remains that only a few market leaders received a bulk of the funding in 2020. This is leading to an untenable rise in marketing and advertising costs for smaller players, forcing them to look outwards for new markets that are not restricted to K-12 as well as to new segments such as gamified and extra-curricular learning. This is also leading to a spurt in mergers and acquisitions to enable collaborative synergies and access to resources while expanding the range of career outcomes available to a wider base of learners.

World's teaching capital

Finally, the big opportunity is for India to establish itself not only as the source of learning and knowledge but also as the global teaching centre of choice. Powered by new-age technologies such as machine learning, AI, deep tech and gamification, Indian edtech players can empower learners across the globe, even beyond the K-12 segment. They can offer a platform where individuals from any corner of the world can be coached and mentored by experts via live classes and in many languages.

The ancient universities of Takshshila and Nalanda drew students from China, Japan, Korea, Persia, as well as countries across south-east-, central- and western Asia. Today, Indian edtech firms stand at the cusp of an opportunity to once again attract students from across the world and make India the teaching capital of the world. The time to grab this opportunity is now!

(The author is Chairperson & Co-founder at Upgrad)