Edtech startups can help bridge the gaps in Indian education system

Dr. Vandana Sonwaney , Director, SIOM, opines that edtech for adults—whether in the form of vocational skills, tertiary or higher education, or skilling for managerial growth—can make India’s workforce more competitive. Education and learning have a social fabric which develops a person holistically. Social skills are crucial for jobs and go beyond technical competencies.

Prof. Dr. Vandana Sonwaney, Director, SIOM

IBT: Why are edtech start-ups seeing a record jump in fundraising activities this year? How has the pandemic changed the business model for edtech start-ups?

Dr. Vandana Sonwaney: Indeed, with funding worth US$ 2 billion being pumped into Indian edtech start-ups and the market size to grow to US$ 10 billion by 2025, Indian edtech sector is a big ticket opportunity. The pandemic has opened the vast potential for this sector, especially in India, like never before.

Digitalization stimulates entry of new firms (start-ups) based on innovative implementation of digital technology. Edtech start-ups came up with innovative services not just in terms of test preparation & certifications but also for core curriculum delivery for K12, skill development for graduates and enterprise solutions for institutions. In a very basic sense, it offers a new opportunity to shape the learning experience for all students across India.

But more than that, it’s the need of the hour that gate-crashed educational institutions that were forced to adapt to edtech solutions. While COVID-19 forced everyone to go online, it showcased the poor tech readiness of schools. This changed the focus of edtech companies, propelling them to offer more off the shelf products.

IBT: What can these start-ups do in bridging the gap in Indian education system and helping them acquire the skills actually needed in the Indian job market?

Dr. Vandana Sonwaney: There’s a lot that these start-ups can do in this regard. Skill development is one of the most lucrative market opportunities in K-12 as well as graduation space. Coding and other STEM-related skills are currently witnessing a massive adoption. Skills oriented certificate courses like AI, ML, Python, Design thinking, Big data analytics etc. have a huge demand in the market.  Industry is looking out for such competencies.

What start-ups can do is to upskill and reskill students based on their career aspirations, help educators with student management, communication and teaching, and helping educational institutions with administration etc. Edtech for adults—whether in the form of vocational skills, tertiary or higher education, or skilling for managerial growth—can make India’s workforce more competitive.

IBT: A lot of these startups have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model due to their obsession with scale, which ignores factors like differences in learners’ grasping powers and variety in courses. What strategies can these startups adopt to these situations and offer customised solutions?

Dr. Vandana Sonwaney: At a broader perspective, India is a diverse country and hence the educational needs and demands of learners vary.  At a micro level, each student in a single class is also different with respect to his learning pattern. This surely impacts not just teaching but also learning and assessments. Edtech start-ups design their products on education life cycle and not on individual learning cycle.

Assessment of learning at various stages of course delivery and performance of students thereof, should direct students to different routes / processes. Students with low speed should be take to remedial tracks and students with higher learning needs should be given more challenging tests. Interactivity and dynamic platforms will induce students to be more participative and hence give feedback to educators on her specific needs

Given the volatility and ever changing consumer demands, these start-ups should have more data-centric view and an agile approach to stay competitive. At different levels (K12, College, PG, Executive) students’ demands would change. By the virtue of these being digital, it seems more crucial that they adapt tech enabled processes to track the needs to individual level.  Continuous engagement with customers will help program necessary solutions.  The beauty of tech enabled offerings is that one can attract masses as well as customise it to suit individual demands.

IBT: A lot of education start-ups in India sell the dream of a promising job or admission in a premier educational institution to young minds in India. According to you, are these really successful, given the skewed pupil-to-teacher?

Dr. Vandana Sonwaney: Job or admission to premier institutes is the function not just of online learning but also the manifestation of that learning in the pupils’ behaviour, attitude and skills set. Rote learning never helps. That is only learning by knowing. But for jobs specifically, one needs learning by feeling, doing and being. Hence, co-curricular activity and experiential learning are equally important. 100% tech enabled education can be useful in a Vocational Education or skill based courses. Improved gamification hybrid learning platforms may help.

Online learning may help in pre-assessments in admissions but not further. But education and learning has a social fabric which develops a person holistically. Social skills are crucial for jobs and go a long way beyond technical competencies.

IBT: What is your take on the impact of start-up business models on the digitization of learning? What kind of challenges are these Edutech start-ups facing and how can these be resolved?

Dr. Vandana Sonwaney: Lack of goverment regulations and structured regulatory measures impact the start-up business models. Also, a lot of free content is available online. Hence, paid models is a challenge. Digital learning cannot replace traditional model completely as it lacks 360 degree development and learning. Institutional and cross-sector partnerships will enable wider reach as edtech players attempt to expand their user base. There needs to be a push towards expansion to cater to lower tier cities and lower income groups, representing close to 70% of the addressable student population. Only 10% of the current student population comprises active edtech users (free and paid).

There is need for affordable offerings to drive wider adoption. Entrepreneurs should look to build solutions that address these challenges, keeping in mind the end goal of improved learning outcomes. This will help serve students across income segments. The levers for sustainable business models will grow w.r.t. pricing, offering, coverage, delivery, offline support elements, and teacher training services.

Prof. Dr. Vandana Sonwaney, Director, SIOM is a gold medalist at high school, commerce graduation and Management post-graduation. She has worked for various multinational brands in FMCG and services sector with profiles in brand liquidation, Logistics service enhancement, S&OP, and SCM as key foci. After a decade in the industry, Prof. Vandana started her own consulting firm in corporate research services. She has completed various assignments for Paints, Logistics, Insurance, manufacturing and Public Service industry. Her PhD in management contributed to insights in talent profile mapping and competency development during the early LPG era.

Prof. Vandana entered the academic field to contribute to research and application oriented learning systems. She raised the ranks from Faculty to Deputy Director of SCMHRD in a span of 4 years. Her exemplary work in curriculum development and orchestrating them with competency requirements of corporate has contributed to conceiving and shaping SIOM as of today.

Prof. Vandana is also registered Ph.D. guide in the area of Management. She has been a Member of Academic council, at Symbiosis International (Deemed University) (SIU). She was awarded the” Distinguished Service Award” by AIMS International for her contribution to fostering Management Research. She served on the Advisory board of World HRD Congress in Feb 2009 and was awarded the Best Professor in “Marketing Management” by the 2nd Asia’s Best B- School Award in the year 2011.

*All views expressed are the author’s personal opinion and not the organizations she represents.

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