More people turn to ed-tech firms as COVID-19 fear keeps people indoor
Representational image. Photo: iStock

More people turn to ed-tech firms as COVID-19 fear keeps people indoor

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As a fallout of the coronavirus threat, the demand for online education is witnessing a massive jump across the world. With universities, colleges, and schools being shut to check the spread of the deadly virus, the learning has gone online.

As of March 13, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that over 421 million children are affected due to school closures being implemented in 39 countries. Besides, another 22 countries have announced partial “localised” closures.

This has nudged the technology providers, education professionals, publishers, telecom network operators and governments to come together to offer innovative solutions using digital platforms.

Field day for edtech players

In India, there is a huge surge in enrolment for online courses at school and college level and also for competitive examinations.

“Overall, in the last one week, we have witnessed 40 percent jump in admissions. The daily watch minutes are almost doubled as students are at home and attending regular online classes,” said Akhand Swaroop Pandit, CEO and Founder, Catalyst Group, an online learning platform for competitive exams.

On one hand, educational institutions are offering online classes while on the other educational technology players like BYJU’s, Toppr, Unacademy and Catalyst Group are offering free digital classes for students.

Bengaluru-based BYJU’s, the leader in the education technology space, said it was making all its learning programmes for students in classes 1 through 12 free until April-end.

Its competitor, Toppr, offered free access to its live and video classes for school kids until March 31. The students from grade I to XII can access lessons in Mathematics, English and Science on the BYJU’S mobile app without any charge.

Unacademy, which provides education through video classes, PowerPoint presentations and other materials to help government job aspirants prepare for competitive exams, has offered 20,000 live classes free for those preparing for the UPSC, banking, railways and other entrance tests.

“Given the rigour of the exam season, access to the learning programme will help students continue with their preparation,” a spokesman of BYJU’s, an Edtech unicorn, said. March-April is the exam season across India and schools shutting down during these crucial months can highly impact students’ academic growth.

“Edtech can fill in for the gap in schooling for a temporary period. But if schools are shut longer, we will need to find ways to enable school teachers to directly conduct live classes and figure out how kids can take exams,” cautioned Toppr founder Zishaan Hayath.

Live and personalised learning platform, Vedantu, is joining hands with schools in Bengaluru, New Delhi, Kerala, and Hyderabad to provide uninterrupted classes to the students.

“We will ensure academic requirements, continuity and learning does not halt while schools and colleges are closed. We are offering entire learning live and online, which can easily be done from home and does not involve individual contact. We will ensure the teachers train, adopt and get confident with the online technology platform,” said the company’s co-founder Vamsi Krishna.

This Bengaluru-based edtech start-up offers a learning solution for Classes VI to XII and competitive exams such as JEE and NEET. Under its new offering, schools can use their own teachers to deliver classes using Vedantu’s personalised platform.

Digital divide

The experts have warned that new shifts in education approaches could widen equality gaps, given the digital divide. The quality of learning is heavily dependent on the level and quality of digital access.

After all, only around 60 percent of the world’s population is online. While virtual classes on personal tablets may be the norm in developed countries, many students in less developed economies rely on lessons and assignments sent via WhatsApp or email.

Moreover, the less affluent and digitally savvy individual families are, the further their students are left behind. When classes transition online, these children lose out because of the cost of digital devices and data plans.

Unless access costs decrease and quality of access increases in all countries, the gap in education quality, and thus socioeconomic equality will be further exacerbated.

Edtech market

India’s education technology market is projected to be worth $2 billion by 2021, based on 9.6 million users, according to a 2016 report by KPMG and Google.

In 2016, it was worth $250 million, with 1.6 million users. A 2018 report on Indian edtech start-ups by industry body NASSCOM and consultancy Zinnov found that 3,000 edtech start-ups had been incorporated in the previous five years, backed by venture capital funds and other high-profile investors, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So far, the industry is dominated by apps that supplement school-level education or offer professional reskilling. The latter reflects India’s demographic dividend, with working-age people making up 62.5 per cent of the total population.

The industry experts predict 10 million enrolments in online/distance courses by 2021, with high demand from semi-urban and suburban areas.

Other rapidly growing market segments are preparation for undergraduate and other competitive exams, such as the GMAT, civil service entrance exams and professional engineering exams.

A 2019 report by employability evaluation company, Aspiring Minds, claimed that 80 per cent of Indian engineering graduates lack the skills for the knowledge economy.

While edtech platforms such as Udacity and Unacademy offer courses on future-facing subjects such as Artificial Intelligence and data science, prohibitive pricing limits access.

The experts say that online education and edtech in India is still not fully integrated into the mainstream education system. This is despite a significant push given by the governments towards online education.

In 2018, the University Grants Commission (UGC) approved new rules that allow all colleges and universities to offer full-fledged online courses, subject to meeting certain quality criteria. Some universities have sent proposals for starting new online degrees but they are yet to take off on a larger scale.

India has the third largest higher education system in the world, but it is marked by significant disparities in access to high-quality institutions. The current enrolment rate is only about 25 per cent, and the student body is largely dominated by people from urban areas and higher income groups.

However, internet access is more widely distributed; cheap data costs mean that more than 40 per cent of the population are already online. With rural aspirations for a white-collar future increasing, conditions are ripe for solutions that can democratise knowledge and skills. And, the online education models can deliver that.

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