One of the biggest impacts of the ongoing pandemic has been on the education sector- as schools, colleges, and other educational institutions have been closed for over a year now. Some of these institutions across states opened sporadically earlier this year but have been closed again in the ongoing second wave. The pandemic has brought forth necessity and urgency for digitalization and the adoption of new technologies in the education sector. Thrust for blended learning in the education sector is not new and this was also emphasized by the National Education Policy, released by the Union government last year.
With the forced shutdown of physical classes and the stalling of examinations, the Edtech sector in the country which was already gaining momentum witnessed a surge of its integration into the mainstream conventional education space.
Technology, a necessary boon
The adoption of smarter technology solutions assists the modern classroom to add several features, including a live-streaming camera, allowing schools to reach out to students beyond their geographical reach. These, in addition to smart boards, and technologies such as AI for evaluating submitted assignments and exams, scanning notes, eye movement tracking to capture student attendance, interest, and involvement, have the potential to transform classroom education to a different level of efficiency.
It also helped the teachers to focus on key teaching methods instead of just dispensing information, as was mostly the case in a traditional classroom format. Additionally, online assessments backed by data analytics offer valuable, measurable insights into student and teacher performance, that help identify and improve specific areas of concern.
Upskilling of Teachers
The teachers have been able to upskill themselves as online learning has helped them to pursue digital courses which helped them stay abreast with the latest developments in their field and hone their skills from the comfort of their homes while keeping their jobs. The online sessions have surely shaped the careers of the Educators through credible certifications.
Agile and Connected Learning
EdTech firms have helped in creating app-based learning agile. Most of the schools have leveraged these platforms for effective engagement with parents. Also, remote learning benefited through recorded videos or online live streaming of the classroom which allow for on-demand / anytime learning for students who were unable to attend online classes due to health reasons.
The adoption of technology-enabled education solutions across the entire value chain.
During the continuing COVID phase, some education companies received a massive boost of inflow of investments, existing ed-tech companies upgraded their offerings; while at the same time more players quickly shifted gears and went online. The technology adoption was quick- partly forced by lockdown and enabled by low internet data charges and smartphones. The earlier skepticism about traditional educational institutions returning to their old ways once pandemic settles has given way to confidence that ed-tech is here to stay as the pandemic rages on and will irreversibly change teaching-learning methods. However, some of the challenges as described below will need to be addressed along the way:
1. Costs of digitalization- Schools have been offered free technology and content solutions to help with their digitalization efforts. The point of reckoning will come when schools will have to start paying the full cost. While the schools and other educational institutions have realized the power of online education, these costs will eventually have to be borne by parents. While the premium private schools catering to the middle class of India will continue to get enrollment and will not suffer the lasting loss of revenues, affordable private schools are facing challenges in retaining students and getting the revenues from parents whose own lives and livelihoods have been impacted by COVID. Edtech companies will need to find ways of cross-subsidizing and find other sources of revenue generation to keep offering services to different kinds of schools and educational institutions.
2. Engagement of students with online modules- Retaining the interest of students and measuring learning outcomes continues to be a challenge. Making curriculum available digitally doesn’t automatically make it engaging for the learners. Some ed-tech content providers claim to gamify the content to make it interesting. However, the jury is still out on the learning outcomes of gamified content, which is engaging, and textbook content which has all the information, but presentation does not engage. Special skills for curriculum development and assessments are required for online content. It will require building in nudges to motivate and promote self-learning.
3. Digital divide in access- There continue to be a digital divide among rural and urban population, male and female students, availability of content in vernacular languages – the solutions have to be built for India and Bharat which requires both offline and online, solutions compatible with both feature phones and smartphones in both English and vernacular, voice and video. In addition, government schools are still lagging in terms of adapting to the technological evolution in the education sector. A recentreportby the Azim Premji University states that more than 80% of the Govt School teachers express the impossibility of maintaining physical contact with the students. The assessment by the teachers over online tests lacks credibility as the student might be prompted by their parents or siblings at home. We will still have to wait and watch in terms of online education and how it will influence or disrupt conventional in-person classes, as the government schools in Tier -2, 3 cities, and villages are yet to receive access to the internet and smartphones.
While Investors have renewed their faith in the education sector with several companies getting unicorn status last year, the jury is still out in terms of how these companies will develop solutions that meet the needs of the students across the spectrums. It requires carefully assessing the addressable market, revenue model, and delivery channel. Micro solutions will need to be developed which will need to scale on a common technology platform to achieve economies of scale. One thing is clear, the education sector as we knew it is likely to be changed irreversibly.
Views expressed in the article are the personal opinion of Avishek Gupta, Investment Director, Caspian Debt.