Ed-Tech's Sputnik Moment: Turning coronavirus crisis into an opportunity

Ashish Dhawan, founder of Central Square Foundation
Schools are shut across the country and for now this is indefinite. While for students with resources – laptops, computers, smartphones, Internet access and access to educated guidance – a gap in learning is both bridgeable and manageable. For those who lack most of these resources, the gap especially at a certain age and stage can be yawning and insurmountable. 


In a country with 250 million students in the K-12 segment and with a majority of students falling in the bracket where they have few resources, the Covid crisis presents a serious learning hiccup. Barring 10-20 per cent of these students (50 million), a majority of the children don’t have access to most of the resources mentioned: laptops, tablets, computers, Internet access or educated guides at home.


But what many more do have is access to a smartphone and reasonably cheap data services available. As state governments scramble to find solutions, the Central Square Foundation (CSF) – the foundation works in three primary areas: ed-tech, foundational learning and affordable private schools -  has partnered with a couple of organisations to offer two products to states for free: TopParent and TicTacLearn. 


TicTacLearn is a repository of 10,000 learning videos tied to curriculum in partnership with Google.org for math and science in five languages  — Hindi, English, Telugu, Odia, and Marathi. It is the single largest such repository of learning videos and will be available free on YouTube and on the ministry of HRD’s own online learning platform Diksha.


Further, with the lockdown, CSF is working on the premise that every home is a school and every parent a teacher. To help parents engage meaningfully with their children to develop their foundational skills, TopParent, a new app by CSF will soon be available for downloading free of cost. Three offerings – Google Bolo, Chimple and Math Masti – will children make sense of letters and numbers in fun and interactive ways. Madhya Pradesh launched the app last week while CSF is currently engaged with another 7-8 Hindi speaking states to see how far this can be applied. The app can potentially reach at least 40 million students in Grade 1-3 in these states.


Ashish Dhawan, founder of CSF spoke to Anjuli Bhargava on how one can turn the present crisis into an opportunity, how sustainable it can be and how he sees the future of education both at K-12 and higher-ed level. Excerpts from a detailed chat:


Where had we as a country reached with online education at a macro level countrywide prior to this crisis? Which were some of the segments that were adapting to it well?


As far as ed-tech is concerned, it was already becoming clear that the two existing markets that can port over more easily are test preparations and tutoring. Both of these are large markets from a revenue standpoint. In both markets, technology has vastly improved: live classes are not asynchronous with improved Internet and bandwidth, there are better tools for measuring progress, assessments are easier and so on. 


However, penetration levels for these two segments are still very low. If one looks at tutoring as a whole, I don’t think all the platforms cumulatively would have even 1 per cent paid subscribers relative to how many kids pay for tuition classes. So in some senses, the present crisis presents a huge opportunity. It is ed-tech’s sputnik moment. The present crisis can act as a catalyst to attract many more on their platforms. Even without COVID, these markets would have reached 10-20 per cent penetration over a period of time. This can help reach the same goals faster.


Another area that can see a substantial spurt is the supplementary education segment. A student is sitting at home and trying to do some homework. He doesn’t understand a concept or gets stuck or he wants to revise a concept. 


Now with many players offering vernacular products too, there is a big opportunity. for all the players – both in for profit and not for profit segment. Everyone may be offering products for free during the crisis but how many know that? Those who have better messaging and broader outreach combined with a strong product will be the ultimate winners. Even for the higher end players, there is a clear opportunity to go beyond the 10-20 per cent of the 250 million plus market. 


But won’t children who either have or get access to a phone typically use it to play games and for entertainment ?


Household penetration of mobile phones is high at almost 70-80 per cent. In the present crisis, most households are using their device a lot. But children are at home and falling behind in their learning. While a few months may not make a radical difference, if the messaging is right and awareness is created and parents hand over their phones to children for even half an hour a day to deploy constructively, we can see a sea change in attitude and appreciation for ed-tech learning. 


But let’s be clear typically if a child does get hold of a phone, the tendency will be to watch videos on YouTube or some other fun stuff. You are fighting entertainment here. This is true across segments. Even children who have their own phones are more likely to use them for entertainment than learning!


At a macro level, it is important for state governments to create awareness. This is the moment to adopt free ed-tech resources and get teachers aligned to ensure that all teaching and learning does not come to a halt. They can continue to help students learn using these platforms. But for that parents have to be brought on board. A community effort is needed. Post the crisis, I think the government should consider developing an ed-tech 2025 vision for the country as a whole. 


But are we likely to see a behavioural change that is long term and sustained?


I think a shift in behavior on the margins can be expected. Early adaptors or those ahead on the bell curve could tip over as they get a full chance to appreciate the advantages.


But will students stop going to school or will a Kota disappear? I don’t think so at all. And neither should they. Schools and colleges play a big role in socialization, independence and peer learning that is invaluable. Even a Kota – with all its negatives and crazy as it sounds – there is some merit in locking and immersing yourself into an environment to achieve something.


But as far as learning outside the classroom is concerned or supplementing what one learns in school, ed-tech will play a bigger and bigger role. 


Speaking at a broader level, will a Harvard or any Ivy League be replaced going forward? I don’t think so at any stage. Besides a stimulating classroom environment, these top end colleges offer a unique peer learning and network building opportunity. I expect the top end to innovate and make their own learning more experiential but it will remain as is.


Even the second rung colleges will continue to attract students. Learning at these colleges will be supplemented with some up-skilling through a Coursera or Upgrad or similar offering to get jobs.


Where I do see a shift in the future is with vocational learning. I don’t need a degree necessarily or I can get a degree online and I want to get to work as soon as possible. Here the ed-tech offerings can play a much broader role. We are already seeing that with up-skilling and corporate training. 


In India, I think ed-tech can play a significant role as it can improve the quality for the masses. But for the institutes that provide a poor quality, there will be a weeding out. It maybe better to get an online degree from an IIT-like offering than going to a engineering colleges ranked close to the bottom.


What are you hoping can happen with TopParent and TicTacLearn?


Madhya Pradesh has launched and others are looking at it. Kids are sitting at home idle. It is an opportunity for states to raise awareness and explain to parents how their children can gain. Just an ad won’t help. The governments will have to start a mass outreach by mobilising the wider community including school heads and teachers. 


COVID presents an adoption opportunity but do I expect lots of users immediately. No I don’t. Adoption will be low as a percentage. Even if 5 per cent use it – maybe 1-2 million - we’d be better than no one using it. This is an opportunity to seed the market. 


But even post COVID if the word spreads, this will remain at the back of their mind. The resources are available; it’s what one makes of them. 

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel