The Education Technology (Ed-Tech) industry has a strong and rapidly growing presence across the world, especially in India. In the country, several Ed-Tech start-ups are looking to grow massively and transform the digital learning ecosystem in the process, with Leverage Edu being the most recent example by raising Rs. 47 crores in Series A funding. Their reach spans the entire academic spectrum, from companies such as WhiteHat Jr that targets kids aged between 6 and 14 years to ones such as UpGrad that focuses on budding professionals aiming to develop industry-relevant skills.
At the same time, India has a huge and established coaching industry that has transformed cities like Kota in Rajasthan into major coaching hubs. This industry, too, spreads its net far and wide, ranging from preparing students in elementary school for various junior Olympiads to helping aspiring civil servants to crack the coveted IAS Exams. This industry has, over time, cemented its position in the Indian educational landscape.
It is important to note that Ed-Tech companies vary hugely in their focus and direction. Therefore, their performance is not necessarily hinged on how they compare with the coaching industry. Nevertheless, comparing the two can yield some insight into the areas in which Ed-Tech stands to innovate and augment the learning ecosystem as well as its role in shaping the future of education in the country.
The coaching industry is largely centred around providing training for competitive exams at various levels. Several major coaching institutes have set up training centres in almost all the major cities that provide classroom programs aimed at cracking such exams. In addition to this, many institutes also offer correspondence coaching through ‘distance learning programs’, where the learning material is sent to the students remotely and online test packages are provided. A lot of Ed-Tech companies such as Unacademy and Amazon’s new venture into the sector - Amazon Academy - share this goal of preparing students for competitive exams, with Amazon Academy currently providing help specifically for the IIT-JEE entrance exam.
One of the questions to ask in this regard is if such companies carry out the same function as the coaching institutes, albeit online, or if they have something new to offer. While many coaching institutes try to offer digital learning programs as well, their efforts have not taken off, perhaps because these institutes do not specialise in online learning to the extent that companies such as Unacademy or Amazon Academy do. Another important difference is that these platforms provide a uniform learning experience regardless of location. For instance, the quality of classroom coaching programs may differ from city to city based on the quality of faculty available at that particular location. In this sense, Ed-Tech companies can eliminate the regional differences in the quality of coaching received. Further, the programs offered by them are usually cheaper than a typical classroom program at a coaching institute. Even while keeping the cost of their products relatively low, such companies also offer a platform for highly distinguished faculty to reach a much broader set of learners.
One of the most deeply scarring effects of the pandemic has been on human capital accumulation. This is because it depends on the average number of years of schooling among the population, which has been severely hampered over the past year with several children’s access to education being abruptly cut off. This shows the need for education to be made more capable of withstanding the possibility of such unexpected challenges. Ed-Tech has a huge role to play here by not only making access to education more flexible but also reducing both the direct costs and opportunity costs to upskilling and reskilling. Generally, the factors that deter people from working on developing new skills are not restricted to just the direct costs involved, but also include the indirect opportunity cost of the time they spend to develop these skills. This opportunity cost exists not only for salaried workers but also for students, who could potentially be learning other things in the time they spend in coaching classrooms. Ed-Tech does the job of addressing the concerns of both direct and indirect costs - the former is addressed by offering a cheaper alternative to in-person classes, while the latter is addressed by being flexible enough to accommodate alongside other commitments.
While the coaching industry’s presence remains firmly in place and will most likely continue to do so despite the pandemic, it does not mean that there is no role for Ed-Tech companies to shape and transform the educational system. Improvements to digital access that come with initiatives such as Reliance Jio’s push to make smartphones and 5G more affordable can go hand in hand with Ed-Tech to make education more accessible. As for the level of innovation in the sector, India is in a good position relative to the rest of the world, along with China and the US, in terms of the most Ed-Tech unicorns that are attracting huge amounts of venture capital. It is important that this growth is channelled in the right direction so that India’s education industry reaches its full potential for transformation.
(Written by Arvind Gururaj and Edited by Sagara Ann Johny)