Online Education – Miles to go for last mile smile

The EdTech industry in India has had an adoption problem. Despite good initial traction, parents, teachers and students are still sceptical of adopting it on a massive scale. Most products have largely been used to supplement regular lessons at school and they never got the love they probably deserved. But when coronavirus forced schools to shut down, all that changed rather quickly.

In fact, as soon as India adopted a nationwide lockdown, EdTech platforms witnessed a surge in user registrations and website traffic. A study of the 35 top online learning platforms revealed that the segment saw a 26 per cent increase in user visits between April 2019 and March 2020, compared to the year before.

India is EdTech market leader Byju is saw a 3X increase in the number of students accessing its app and other startups in the space started growing exponentially as well. Exam preparation platform Gradeup launched a campaign called (hashtag)PadhaiNahiRukegi, and Toppr, which prepares students for entrance exams such as IIT-JEE, BITSAT, and NEET saw a 100per cent growth in monthly paid users.

But there is one big problem. Everybody wants to talk about the future of online education in India without necessarily taking stock of the present-day situation.

 

As Vijay Govindarajan and AnupSrivastava write in the Harvard Business Review:

 

So many of us whose daily schedules have become a list of virtual meetings can attest, there are hardware and software issues that must be addressed before remote learning can really take off. We have no doubt that digital technologies (mobile, cloud, AI, etc.) can be deployed at scale, yet we also know that much more needs to be done. On the hardware side, bandwidth capacity and digital inequalities need addressing. The F2F (Face to Face) setting levels lots of differences, because students in the same class get the same delivery. Online education, however, amplifies the digital divide. Rich students have the latest laptops, better bandwidths, more stable wifi connections, and more sophisticated audio-visual gadgets.

 

And this digital divide is particularly steep in India.

The National Sample Survey on Education indicates that only 24per cent of households have Internet access and a mere 11 per cent own computers. And according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, even though about 78 per cent  of Indians have mobile phones, the density of this distribution in rural areas (where a bulk of the population resides) only tallies up to around 57per cent. Also, mobile phones are convenient for a variety of reasons but try completing a lengthy assignment or writing your exam in one. It does not work quite as well. A recent survey by QS also found that out of 7500 students, 72.6per cent used mobile phone hotspots to access the Internet- and roughly  97per cent of them faced connectivity and signal issues. Only 15per cent had access to broadband.

 

But, even before we consider gadget availability and internet connection, there is a more fundamental consideration — electricity. Power supply in rural areas is notoriously patchy. 16per cent households of India received 1–8 hours of electricity daily, 33per cent received 9–12 hours, and only 47per cent received more than 12 hours

And besides, schools often provide essential support beyond academics. Think — Nutrition. Mid-day meals are a boon to most families living near the poverty line. It is literally a lifesaver. But with the lockdown in place, 9.12 crore Indian children have lost access to midday meals. It is tragic.

Now obviously that does not mean the likes of Toppr and Gradeup are not useful. They obviously are. But they target a very specific niche. They are not necessarily solving the biggest problem in the industry since it is festering at the bottom of the pyramid — the foundation on which this country is built. And if you do not account for this large consumer segment, how can you make progress?

Now obviously you can not expect the private sector do all the heavy lifting here. State governments have to chip in and some of them are stepping up in fact. Several states including Assam, Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh — as well as the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir — have already announced that they will ensure the delivery of mid-day meals to students.

The Delhi government recently chalked out a plan under the "Learning with human feel" scheme to bridge the digital divide.

 

1. KG to 8th grade: Teacher will guide students through WhatsApp

2. 9th to class 10: Teachers will prepare study material and share it on WhatsApp

3. Class 11 to 12th: Teachers will take an online period of 45 minutes

 

Even others are trying to figure out how best to impart education if the lockdown persists. But the bottom line is this — the future of online education in India will depend on how we accommodate the largely under-served population of this country. And we would not make considerable progress if we do not address some of the systemic challenges plaguing this sector.

 

Until next time…