Karnataka: Crisis opportunity

EducationWorld April 2020 | Education News

The upside of the global rampage of the Coronavirus, aka Covid-19 pandemic, which at the time of writing (April 2) has infected 1 million people worldwide and caused 53,238 deaths — and 2,567 and 72 respectively in India — is that it has vastly improved the business prospects of India’s hitherto struggling edtech companies. Although an estimated 380 ed tech companies have sprung up around the country to service the world’s largest child and youth population of over 500 million, and a large number of them have raised venture capital, edtech entrepreneurs have been having a hard time persuading school managements in particular to integrate digital ICT (information communication technologies) into their classrooms.

Despite this, several new edtech companies have sprung up with an eye on the country’s 375,000  private independent and 400,000 private budget (affordable) schools which host almost half of the country’s 250 million in-school children. Especially in Bangalore (pop. 10 million), commonly known as the ICT capital and Silicon Valley of India. Currently an estimated 300 edtech companies have their head offices in Bangalore. Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic and nationwide shutdown of schools and work from home orders of the Central and state governments, all of them are receiving a flood of  enquiries and reporting a significant uptick in business. Suddenly school managements and households across the country are signing up for online classes to ensure that their children’s education is not disrupted by the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

This upsurge of interest in digital classrooms and online learning has come as manna from heaven for edtech companies. Thus far they have been struggling to cope with teacher resistance to online learning. But such resistance is melting away during the prolonged period of schools closure which began in mid-March. Several Bangalore-based market leader companies including Byju’s, Vendantu, TCS iON, Catalyst Group and DPS’ Entrar have moved swiftly to cater to the demand for digital classrooms and online learning packages.

For instance the Bangalore-based Think & Learn Pvt. Ltd, aka Byju’s, was quick to publish expensive (reportedly Rs.50 lakh each) full front page ads in the top-selling Times of India offering “free live classrooms taught by India’s best teachers” on specified days and specific times for children in classes IV-X, as also for class XI-XII students aspiring to write JEE and NEET. These virtual classes could be accessed on all digital devices including mobile phones for free-ofcharge trial.

Curiously, despite liberally expending vast amounts by way of ephemeral advertising on television and shortshelf life dailies, Byju Raveendran, the eponymous founder-CEO and other directors of this e-learning company which has attained unicorn ($8 billion or Rs.59,200 crore) valuation through repeated rounds of funds raising despite barely breaking even, believe they are not answerable to media. Repeated calls to the company to ascertain cost-benefit details of its expensive advertising campaigns (which also feature movie star Shah Rukh Khan) proved infructuous. Therefore whether this heavily advertised company, which has an estimated 3 million K-12 student subscribers who pay Rs.15,000-34,000 per subject per year for supplementary and refresher education, has benefited from the Covid-19 crisis, remains a mystery.

Akhand Swaroop Pandit, promoter-CEO of the Delhi-based Catalyst Group Pvt. Ltd (estb. 2018), is more forthcoming. This company broadcasts recorded lectures from its studios across the country to students preparing for the IIT-JEE and UPSC public entrance exams on the subscription model. Currently the company has 280,000 registered subscribers who pay Rs.2,000-38,000 dependent upon the duration of their subscription to access its lectures. “We have experienced a 50 percent surge in subscriber registrations. The Covid-19 epidemic lockdown has forced students who were reluctant to use digital technologies to do so. With the passage of time, they will become increasingly comfortable with it until online learning becomes normative,” says Pandit.

But while the Covid-19 crisis and mandatory shutdown of all education institutions has created boom conditions
for edtech and online education providers, experienced educators warn them against rushing to market with illdesigned programmes which could provoke a backlash. A major complaint against early mover K-12 digital learning companies such as Educomp, Edurite and School Net was that they were driven by marketing rather than production and process implementation priorities.

“The prime market of edtech companies is in tier-II-IV cities and towns where it’s difficult for schools to recruit
good teachers. But edtech companies should take care to develop teacher-friendly and enabling programmes and
thoroughly train teachers to use their technology. If they don’t iron out all wrinkles in their online education programmes, they will waste the good opportunity to popularise online and digital learning provided by the Covid-19 crisis,” warns Nooraine Fazal, co-founder and CEO of the Inventure Academy, Bangalore, ranked among India’s Top 5 co-ed day schools in the EW India School Rankings 2019-20. Currently this K-12 school is using Zoom and Google Classroom platforms to deliver online learning during the shutdown period.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown has unexpectedly created a huge business opportunity for India’s hitherto struggling edtech companies. It would be a pity if they wasted the opportunity generated by this crisis.

Dilip Thakore (Bangalore) 

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