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Edtech startups in India: a ray of hope for transforming the learning experience

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From distance education to cultural preservation, digital platforms are transforming the way learning is visualised and presented, with wide-ranging implications for publication of educational content, access by users around the world, and business models for sustainable social impact. Governments and academic institutes, as well as tech providers and entrepreneurs can jointly transform the definition of learning.

The combination of digital media and education requires a number of inter-disciplinary skills, blending user experience and analytics with pedagogy and even game theory. Success in new educational ventures calls for a collaborative approach and a deep understanding of the complex interconnections between technology platforms, influencers, educators, publishers, administrators and learners.

Startups in edtech today span sectors such as K-12, higher education, vocational training, and corporate training sectors. Opportunities lie in financial management tools, teacher lifecycle management, and curriculum development, according to Manoj Thandassery, founder of Curiositi.

Startups in this sector have rolled out offerings such as personalised assessments, VR content, parent engagement, gamification, soft skills development, digital libraries, student networking, test preparation, procurement marketplaces, learning analytics, language tools, internship location, and real-time scenario engagement.

In this article, we analyse the evolution of the edtech sector, transformative forces, the rise of small startups alongside large players, investment outlook, potential for future growth, and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs in this space.

Roots of transformation

Portable devices can help bring in elements of physical mobility into education which do not exist as much in classroom settings, according to Jon Mason, Senior Lecturer, College of Education, Charles Darwin University. Wireless sensors, cloud computing, digital publishing and educational interactivity offer new pedagogic models of mobile learning via online reference tools, curriculum material, external research and strategic learning.

Following, in the wake of the social media revolution, are the dual trends of cloud computing and the modularisation of computer software (as standalone apps). Other transformative forces are advances in electronic publishing and the latest generation of e-book readers. But challenges arise in rural school inclusion, and guarding against attention deficit, cheating and cyber-bullying, Mason cautions.

Fields like journalism education are being transformed, thanks to the democratic impacts of digital media – which potentially make everyone a writer, publisher, photographer and global broadcaster. Challenges arise here in building digital literacy right at school levels, that extends to proper assessment of online sources, including lessons on how to deal with fake news and hate speech. Xu Xiaoge, a research scholar at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), makes the compelling case that mobile media is not a gear change but a game change. He argues that mobile journalism should be taught to all students, not just journalism students.

Keval Kumar, Adjunct Professor at the Fellow Programme in Communications at MICA, Ahmedabad, urges for critical pedagogy approaches in areas like checking for credibility of sources on the internet, use of advertorials, and dealing with spam. The digital medium has become an invaluable resource for both lecturers and students; how it is used by teachers will depend on the strategies of their media pedagogy.

Research publications like NetChakra have traced the impact of digital media on India’s education system. From the SITE television experiment and Countrywide Classroom to Gyan Darshan and EduSat, waves of new media have enhanced education, according to Usha Reddy, Hyderabad-based independent consultant on ICT for development. Challenges arise in precise measurement of e-leaning outcomes and adapting pedagogic and administrative frameworks.

Digital media has deeply impacted youth and the 4Ls of Learning: Lecture, Library, Laboratory and Life, according to Prof. S. Sadagopan, Dean, IIIT Bangalore. The availability of laptops and Wi-Fi on campuses have improved the student’s learning experience considerably. INDEST (Indian Digital Library in Engineering Science & Technology) has levelled the field for Indian researchers.

The competitive advantage of emerging economies like India lies in the strengths of its human capital, according to Amir Ullah Khan, Professor, MANU University. India has established one of the finest education systems in the developing world, with some institutions as global stars (IIT, IIM, IISc, IRMA, CSIR, ISRO, BARC) – but they are hard pressed to fill the massive jobs vacuum in the country. India’s youth have a lot to offer, and the digital medium in turn has a lot to offer a country with scarce resources and a large constituency.

India’s huge youth dividend makes education an essential service, according to Mira Desai, Professor, SNDT University. Over the years, a number of educational services portals have sprung up to address this issue: Minglebox.com, 24X7guru.com, Extramarks.com, 100percentile.com, SmartClassOnline.com, WebDunia.com, Prabhasakshi.com, and the Ministry of Human Resources Development’s own Sakshat. Indian universities and colleges are now able to access journals online via INFLIBNET (Information and Library Network).

Edtech startups

According to industry estimates, the Indian higher education system comprises about 700 universities and over 35,500 colleges. More than 85 per cent of these students are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programmes and about one-sixth of all Indian students are enrolled in engineering/technology degree programmes. More than 70 per cent of India is either badly educated or uneducated, and the Right to Education act has been largely ineffective in improving the condition.

Nearly half the population is below the age of 25, many of whom constitute heavy users of the Internet and mobiles, which bodes well for growth of the online education market in India. Initiatives and organisations such as Teach for India, Barefoot College, Nishtha and eVidyaloka are actively tackling these shortfalls, and technology will be one of many drivers for improvement. By 2020, India is projected to have the world’s largest tertiary-age population, and second largest graduate talent pipeline globally.

Entrepreneurship development networks like TiE Bangalore have hosted the edtech bootcamp and competition StartEdu, along with Unitus Seed Fund and Sylvant. In successive rounds of competitions, a number of outstanding edtech startups have been identified. Mentorship support has been offered by S.Chand Publishers, Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, and Integra. Past winners include LabInApp, an edtech startup for secondary school science learning through 3D virtual graphics. LabInApp, based in Hubli, also received a seed-round investmentfrom Unitus.

For example, Plastic Water Labs uses VR to promote spatial thinking by leveraging the power of an immersive metaverse. ToT Smart Education blends physical textbooks with a mobile app for game-based learning along with a performance monitor. Entri is a plug-and-play test preparation platform on the cloud for schools, teachers and coaching institutes.

Walnut Knowledge Solutions has programme called Quizshala, a companion platform that piques the curiosity of the learner, leading to more motivation and sustained interest. XPrep addresses the visibility and engagement problem within the tutor-parent network. Gyan Labs has an adaptive, mobile-friendly learning platform for K-10 students, leveraging gamification and testing in local languages.

Edudharma launched an online crowdfunding platform for NGOs, corporates, individuals, and others to fund student needs in an organised manner. Urros Education has a range of offerings including teacher skill assessment and development; functional support for schools and preschools; and staffing.

ClassPlus is a classroom management app helps tutors reduce time-consuming secondary activities such as creating quizzes, checking assessment, and tracking attendance logs. According to a report by NSSO, India is home to the largest after-school tuition market in the world, with over 7.1 crore out of the 30-crore school-going students take supplementary coaching classes every year.

StuMagz provides a digital Platform-as-a-Service to colleges. It has a strong focus on colleges in Tier II and III cities. The features include digital magazine, digital classrooms, digital information system, placements digital communication, alumni engagement, and payments. It helps with delivery of assignments, materials, and tests as well as managing attendance, timetable, notices and results.

NeoStencil provides online classes to students from teachers and educational institutes for government jobs such as IAS, IES, GATE, and state PCS. The marketplace lets students view a list of teachers for different courses, and choose the course best-suited for them at a convenient time slot.

Open Door has created a platform that helps children learn math and science content with a focus on concepts and scientific thinking. Its ‘Mastery Program’ helps teachers ensure mastery of one concept before moving on to the next. The program is integrated within the school curriculum and becomes a part of classroom teaching.

Veative Labs uses VR to make learning interactive and fun in classrooms. The VR modules in science and mathematics use 3D models, 360-degree videos, tasks, exercises, simulations, and other interactive activities. They are backed by smart analytics and classroom management apps for teachers.

Shirsa Labs offers ‘entercation’ (edutainment) content for students. For example, Planet of GUI is a goal-oriented virtual world for kids, packed with videos, games, worksheets, eBooks, science experiments, DIYs, and quizzes.

AlmaMapper, which raised $400K in seed funding, offers a student utility platform for alumni connects, campus activities, and sharing of notes, articles, and videos. Startups active in other areas like tutoring space include Vedantu, Brainnr, EduWizards, and HelloClass.

Large edtech players

In addition to the rise of a range of smaller startups in edtech space, there have been major moves by large players as well. For example, Reliance has announced strategic investment of $180M in Embibe, the largest AI platform for education. Reliance will pick up a majority 72.69 percent stake in Embibe, which uses data analytics to deliver personalised learning outcomes to students. The AI stacks focus on content intelligence and automation, behavioural recommendations, and student intelligence.

Online higher-ed platform UpGrad, co-founded by Ronnie Screwvala, has announced partnerships with institutes like IIIT Bangalore and Cambridge Judge Business School. It has earmarked Rs 200 crore for foraying into Southeast Asian Markets and the Middle East.

Bengaluru-based online education platform Unacademy has raised Series B funding of $11.5 million led by Sequoia India and SAIF Partners. The team claims to have over 50,000 lessons online, and over a million registered users. The platform’s educators range from influencers like Kiran Bedi, to teachers in smaller towns such as Dhiraj Singh Chouhan in Jagdalpur and Yasmin Gill in Panchkula.

Byju’s, one of the largest funded edtech startups in India, has an updated app for unique learning journeys, actionable feedback, recommendations, and guided paths, making the learning process more interactive. It also has a Parent Connect app that provides its students with a real-time update on every student’s progress. Investors in the company include Sequoia Capital, Sofina and IFC. Byju’s also acquired Edurite and TutorVista from the British publishing firm Pearson.

There have also been recent moves by the Indian government in this space. At the announcement of the Union Budget 2018-19, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley highlighted the government’s push towards integrating technology into education: “The government is set to increase digital intensity in education. Technology will be the biggest driver in improving quality of education.” Plans include investment in upgradation of education, and Diksha Digital for teacher education,

Funding

The funding outlook is regarded as upbeat for startups that can develop sustainable and defendable businesses in domains such as test preparation, language learning, differentiated training, and tutoring. Some of the investors and deals in the edtech sector have been already identified in this article.

According to YourStory data, since January 2017, edtech startups raised $94.21 million through 34 deals as against $107 million across 46 deals in 2016. A report by KPMG and Google pegs the edtech market to touch $1.96 billion by 2021.

In early 2018, backed by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the education-focused VC fund CBA Capital launched a Rs-100-crore fund to empower companies focused on education and skilling solutions.

India’s education sector accounts for 9.9 percent of the government’s total budget; Rs 46,356.25 crore was allocated for schools and the remaining for higher education. However, the edtech industry takes a long time in converting its free users into paid ones, cautions a report by RedSeer. The average time period is between six and eight months.

Edtech founder tips

A range of experts offer useful and actionable insights for aspiring edtech entrepreneurs and scale-stage startups. “Immerse in and connect to the broader edtech ecosystem. Vision is great, but don’t forget the numbers, especially in the edtech space. Measuring the efficacy of learning outcomes is the key to succeeding in the education space,” advises Sunitha Viswanathan, Senior Investment Associate, Unitus Seed Fund.

Startups should have not just comprehensive research to back their proposal, but also a compelling founder story: problem discovery, personal voyage (for example, insights in the college stage or post-corporate world), and end-user transformation. Edtech startups seeking funding should also show investors that the problem space is sufficiently large, has good traction, and can offer exits further down the road.

Startups should conduct broad ecosystem mapping to better understand the product-research and decision-making cycles for the stakeholders; for example, the role of school trustees and textbook publishers. Decision makers can be contacted via alumni networks, industry associations, and even tuition centres, calling for extensive networking with the diverse players in the ecosystem.

The founding team should have estimates for TAM (Total Addressable Market), SAM (Segmented Addressable Market), and SOM (Serviceable Obtainable Market). There should be clarity on pricing and financing models, direct and indirect revenue streams, and viability of unit economics in scale stage.

The road ahead

Emerging frontiers in edtech include horizontal marketplaces and local language educational content. India should take an ‘invest and benefit’ approach for e-learning than mere ‘cost justification,’ advises Prof. S. Sadagopan. The internet and tablets have allowed students to go beyond ‘brick and mortar’ laboratories. ‘Peer learning’ and ‘buddy learning’ have mushroomed, thanks to social media and smartphones.

Digital media in schools can help students in collaborative activities, peer-rating/ranking, and asking questions (not just answering them!). Digital metrics in education range from basic activity (eg. number of content assets created or consumed) to process impacts (eg. better research and composition skills),and can even help educational institutes offer these educational services to a broader online audience elsewhere in India around the world. However, children should also learn the importance of trust, safety, ethics, relevance and focus in cyberspace.

“The more ways you teach, the more children you reach,” says Anjum Babakhan, Director of Education, Glendale Academy. In Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligence categories (musical, visual, verbal, logical, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential), each leads to different types of professions and each can be enhanced in different ways by digital media.

Online learning is definitely the way to bring high-end education and learning to the masses with comparatively lower costs, according to Ashwin Damera,Executive Director, Emeritus Institute of Management. In this regard, edtech transformations are regarded as a ray of hope to tackle India’s vast challenges.

In sum, the mobilisation of digital media for the purposes of learning, education, and training will be one of the key factors in shaping the Indian youth and workforce in the coming decades.

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