Edtech firms' moment in the sun as lockdown forces institutes to shut

Topics EdTech | Coronavirus | Byju's

With a captive audience of at least 50-100 million students in the first two weeks of March, several online and edtech firms either began to offer their existing products free or launched new products
Free online classes, virtual classrooms, UPSC prep sessions live, career guidance, IIT and JEE coaching sessions… the list goes on and on. As the country came to a standstill with a 21-day nationwide lockdown being imposed, education technology (edtech) and online education companies in India moved into overdrive, leaving no stone unturned to grab the attention of students, parents, academicians, teachers, schools, and the media.

Ever since a lockdown had become imminent, edtech players — both for-profit and not-for-profit — had started gearing up for the big race. What’s new in this race is that it has both who are hoping for some prize money and others just for a trophy. Those running in the race are being watched by all their regular fans, as well as those who previously ignored them. And the race that began in real earnest in mid-March promises to stretch out for a while (at least till July), giving everyone a fair chance.

With a captive audience of 50-100 million students (most players are targeting the upper end of the market), in the first two weeks of March, several online and edtech players either began to offer their existing products free or launched new products aimed at pulling in users at a time when getting their attention was relatively easy. The idea was mainly to cast their net wider: Target an audience that it might have previously ignored. The net now includes those who may have been fence-sitters in normal times because of the cost of subscriptions or those who could not easily afford their products but can do so at a pinch.

The race now also has new observers who were earlier averse to or even wary of this alien animal. These include state governments that are now scrambling as they begin to grasp the magnitude of the crisis and its impact on already abysmal learning outcomes. They also include budget private schools which don’t have the luxury of offering an online or distance learning platform like their elite counterparts.

What is making the whole grim prospect of millions of children at home rather exciting in a way is that traditional education is one of the sectors most resistant to any kind of change. That’s where the saying how many teachers does it take to change a light bulb emanates from, hinting at the fact that a task that can be performed easily by a child cannot be managed by teachers, who are notorious for resisting change at all times. The crisis presents a massive opportunity for players who get their messaging right and have strong products on offer, says Gouri Gupta, director (edtech) for Central Square Foundation (CSF).

A further opportunity presents itself since both schools and state governments across the country are struggling to find the right resources. While learning at later stages can be delayed or staggered — the Western concept of a gap year is catching up in India too — the gap for students at the foundational stage can be quite daunting to bridge, a fact that schools and increasingly even state governments in India are aware of. As a result, both the for-profit and not-for-profit players are engaging with governments and private schools to see if they can increase their portion of the total pie.

The frenzy of the 4,600-odd private players in the edtech space has been evident in an endless stream of tom-tomming of unverifiable achievements on a daily basis with PR companies in overdrive. To cite a few instances, Bengaluru-headquartered Byju’s, the industry leader, made products free till the end of April. Students in classes 1-3 can access maths and English lessons and students in classes 4-12 can learn maths and science concepts on the Byju’s app.

After freeing content, Byju’s added free live classes, where students could attend 3-4 regular sessions per week. The company claimed that there was an overwhelming response to the free lessons on its learning app, with 6 million new students learning in March alone. Bengaluru-headquartered Vedantu said it typically added approximately 50,000 new paid users to its platform annually. However, during this crisis, it claimed to have added130,000 new users (again a company claim) over just 15 days. The company said it was seeing a 10x growth in users signing up in the first week (March 12 is when it made access to its platform free for students). After creating awareness among students through media, it says there has been a surge of 52X in the number of users signing up.

Bengaluru-based Educational Initiatives (EI) also saw its usage and engagement with Mindspark surge after the lockdown. Mindspark is one of the only products available in the market with independent impact assessments. According to the company, its Mindspark school student numbers doubled while the retail numbers (business-to-customer) rose by 10x after the lockdown came into force.

Mumbai’s Toppr made video classes, covering 17 subjects for classes 5 to 12, free and these will remain so after the lockdown ends. Its live sessions covering eight subjects for classes 5-12 will remain free till schools resume. Zishaan Hayath, the founder of Toppr said it had seen app downloads grow 2x, and paid users grow 3x since lockdown, albeit at a lower paid fee. “In general, more schools are keen to collaborate with tech platforms like ours for digital learning”, he added.

Impartus — a live classroom platform — has opened itself for live online classes completely free to schools and colleges. The company claims it has seen a 10x surge in daily usage, 80 new institutions and 500,000 students on-boarded in the past 3 weeks. Amit Mahensaria, the CEO and co-founder of the firm, says many schools and colleges have shifted from Zoom and Webex, as his platform is designed for education and “mirrors the physical classroom” experience with a focus on student engagement. The company is also providing complimentary training to first-time online teachers so that their classes are smooth and engaging. This has been done with close to 40,000 teachers. 

But while many agree that the crisis does present a real opportunity, it also offers clear and present danger for the weaker products and offerings. Ultimately, even if more parents and children experiment with paid platforms, the test will be holding the attention of a famously fickle entity, the child.

Center for Civil Society’s founder Parth Shah describes it as a “Schumpeterian” moment for edtech players. Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction leads to the dismantling of long standing practices in order to make way for innovation, resulting in winners and losers. “The surge in demand provides a laboratory of unparalleled scale and the Schumpeterian creative destruction would establish which products the market really needs”.  In other words, the next few months could separate the wheat from the chaff -- one of the few silver linings of this global crisis.

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