Edtech in India: Do Our Students Deserve Better?

By DIVANSHU KUMAR

Today’s edtech offerings are built for revenue-generation, not education

The last two decades have seen a significant boom in technology, primarily when it comes to Internet access for the first billion people, as it’s called. There is optimism that technology can solve all the world’s prevalent challenges, especially in education, at scale and with a low cost per customer.

Education, whether provided by the state or distributed via a private medium, has often faced complaints for its conventional system, which has failed to adapt itself as per the evolving needs and size of the population.

As a market, edtech has tremendous potential, given the enormous gap that exists between expectations and the current model. The market for edtech has boomed in India, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic: India is now home to multiple edtech unicorns and was the scene of a slew of acquisitions and funding rounds over the course of the year.

The needs for various segments ranging from early childhood education (ECE), to higher education and professional up-skilling are different. That said, all of them have common problems to solve for:

  • Creating personalization
  • Developing engagement
  • Providing competitive content

The disparities between various edtech sectors become quite interesting in the ECE and K-12 niches. Changing social structures and increasing average household expenses have aggravated existing challenges massively. Both of these markets are expected to grow, at a CAGR of 14%, from 2020 to 2025.

However, while growth in the ECE market is driven by parents’ lack of time, the K-12 market is driven by schools shifting from the traditional blackboard approach to integrating smart technology into learning environments. What makes it different from other segments is that the consumer and the payer are two different entities here, with the consumer (the child) having little or no influence on the decision of the payer (parent).

The problems with Indian edtech today

Parents can often be intimidated by the evolving needs of students, but still want to provide their children with the best possible education. This is fine as long as they understand that education and childcare are complex problems, and can’t be designed as a formulaic set of steps that work for every child.

However, parents sometimes reach for shortcuts in fear of missing out. Some companies take advantage of this mindset with over-the-top marketing headlines that promise to make kids geniuses or ‘successful’ with their magic programs.

Some of these companies, disguised as edtech, are nothing but marketing companies selling education products. Aggressive clickbait advertising masquerading as student success stories often blur the line between marketing and outright deception. Deep-pocketed spending on celebrity ads and glamorous packaging, coupled with a lack of patience from parents, make their products wildly successful at first buy. An artificially-created need drives parents to pay disproportionate fees for low-quality products and services, which in turn fuels more demand. Here, a spiral of problems begins.

Firstly, education must be accountable to outcomes. But performance indicators for these companies are all about sales revenues rather than measurable objectives relevant to education. Amid all the glamor, it’s easy to overlook similar or competing companies in the non-profit or impact space that provide almost the same or better quality of content minus the packaging.

In a sense, these faux-edtech companies are competing with Netflix and other OTT channels to grab a larger share of students’ screen time for themselves, creating content that may be engaging, but isn’t pedagogically rich or proven in any sense. The chase is on simply to get the biggest slice of students’ time in the attention economy but we need to realise that engagement doesn’t equal learning.

Second, programs which were supposed to be optional, taken according to children’s interest and choice, are made to seem compulsory for their growth. For instance, all students need to develop critical thinking skills, and there are hundreds of ways to do so. Learning to code is one such way. It may be a child’s preference, and that’s absolutely okay. However, creating a false narrative showing that it’s the only way is not. A student learning coding in Grade 6 without understanding the foundational algorithms and logic behind it, and with no interest in learning it, will not realize any benefits.

Third, this trend gives the impression that edtech – such as it is – can solve for all of education’s challenges. As pessimistic as it may sound, technology is just an enabler that amplifies the impact of solutions, not a complete solution in itself. Technology can’t replace pedagogies.

Charting the way forward for better education

For a long time, there has been a debate on how much technology helps – if at all – or if education should be open to consumerism like other sectors. While there is no definite answer to that, going back to first principles thinking may help.

The key to understanding this topic is that there’s no series of n steps that can solve the problem for us. There are cultural, geographical, demographical and other factors that affect the way children learn. Fundamentally, the challenge of ensuring good quality education is a set of two complex problems that are of very different nature:

a) Finding the best way to learn something.

b) Making sure that the method is accessible to everyone.

Every solution essentially solves for (a), (b), or both (ab). The solutions that solve for (b) are primarily of interest to governments or institutions catering to low-economic sectors (comprising around 85% of India’s student population, who go government schools or aided private schools). They solve for process gaps at scale.

There have been great successes like Diksha, an e-learning platform launched by the Indian government, which leverages the concepts of ‘societal platforms‘ – systems which take into account all the parties and influences within an issue, as well as the linkages between them. The reason why Diksha succeeded was because it was designed to solve for one thing, which was a process gap. Moreover, technological solutions such as QR codes were smartly integrated into the core system.

Any solution that caters to the (a) or (ab) category needs to have pedagogy at its core. In this case, technology will simply enable easier access or faster understanding, but can’t be the solution by itself. We are still in the learning phase with regard to pedagogies: some are proven, while the majority of them are hypothesis-based, and may work on some sections of the population, but not all.

This is the reason why there are hundreds of theories of change – everyone is testing their hypotheses at various scales. So, while tech integrations in edtech are extremely important, we must not blindly believe that they will solve all our problems, no matter how catchy their advertisements are.

With this understanding, here are four ‘AREAs’ (in the order of increasing difficulty of implementation) to help evaluate the options and make conscious decisions.

  • Accountability: Solution providers must be held accountable for their outcomes. Parents of customers must question the quality and the deliverables as they were initially promised.
  • Regulation: There is a huge demand for better solutions, which markets will respond to. Product innovations will keep coming; however, there is a need for legislation and regulation to ensure people aren’t cheated by false promises. The recent action on the brand “Fair & Lovely” or “Real” may serve as an example.
  • Education: Parents must be educated about their children’s education needs, learning processes, and parenting via large-scale initiatives.
  • Agency: After a certain age, we must focus on developing agency in students, empowering them to make informed decisions for themselves. This will enable ownership and build a long term solution against edtech companies with less-than-pure intent.

These AREAs are complex in their own ways, situated in the social, cultural and economic realities of students. That’s all the more reason for edtech companies to be cognizant of the long-term implications of current trends. We must understand that education is not a one-size-fits-all model. Moreover, it’s definitely not something that can be solved over a coding sprint.

More than productization or pushy marketing, what the world needs right now is an ecosystem that can support fair and equitable education. It’s the education revolution that our students need and deserve.

About the Author

Divanshu is the co-founder and CEO of Involve, an education social enterprise that creates a culture of students learning from each other via Peer based learning. He also heads a robotics startup that uses technology to solve for the problem of water loss and manual scavenging. A problem solver at heart, Divanshu hold a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and master’s degree in product design from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

Header image by Nikhita S on Unsplash

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