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India Emerging from Covid-19 as the Online Education Hotspot

“I dream of creating an education system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity.”

Medhavi Anand, Mentor, and Fellow at Teach for India; Core Team Lead, Project Kaleidoscope Inclusive Education

Most people know that online education is widespread in China and picking up steam in the U.S. But those unfamiliar with the industry may not know that India is capturing the gaze of edtech investors worldwide. While interest in the region had been building, it ramped up dramatically during the novel coronavirus pandemic period. And now, India has emerged as the hotspot source of innovation and destination for funding within the global online education market. spoke with Teach for India fellow Medhavi Anand to learn about how the novel coronavirus pandemic facilitated EdTech’s growing importance in the Indian education market, and how online learning supports educational opportunities for students in the country.

Meet the Expert: Medhavi Anand

Medhavi Anand

Medhavi Anand is a Mentor and Fellow at Teach for India. She also serves as a Core Team Lead for Teach for India’s Project Kaleidoscope Inclusive Education initiative. Anand holds a degree in psychology from the Jesus and Mary College in India.

Inside India’s EdTech Boom

The desire and space for educational advancement, paired with the greatest decline in India’s GDP growth and foreign direct investment over six years in 2019, have spurred the government to take action to address the socioeconomic threat presented by these conditions. In addition to actively courting foreign investment opportunities, the Indian government also aimed to open avenues for the growth of the information technology sector through measures such as its “Start-up India” program, with the intent of creating incentives to enable start-ups to commercialize and grow.

There are currently around 4,500 edtech startups in India seeking to serve learners, teachers, schools, and institutions in positive educational opportunities and outcomes.

Almost half of the companies in the top startups of 2020 in India and South Asia were founded less than five years ago, according to education research company HolonIQ. Since that time, India has dominated the startup landscape. India’s startup ecosystem recorded US$70 billion in funding across 5,985 deals between 2014 and 2020.

Of course, 2020 was a challenging year in many regards, also hitting Indian startups. Although Indian startups saw a 10 percent decrease in overall funding as compared to 2019, it still saw total investment reach more than $11.5 billion in funding, with the number of deals surpassing that of the year prior by 14 percent.

Of the startup ecosystem, edtech was a “dark horse” for investors in 2020, cataloging a 223.2 percent year-over-year rise in funding as remote learning and edtech solutions came into the spotlight, said Indian media platform covering entrepreneurs and startups, Inc42 Plus.

Edtech startups are estimated to have raised more than $1.43 billion across 101 deals between Jan 1 and Dec 17, 2020, despite edtech being one of the least-funded startup segments in 2019 with only 46 deals.

Investments flowed predominantly into industry giants, such as BYJUS, Unacademy, and Vedantu. In a textbook case of event-driven growth, the coronavirus spurred massive growth in valuation and users of these services. For instance, BYJU hosted 45 million free users and 3.5 million paid subscribers from January 2015 to March 2020—this number skyrocketed to 70 million free users and 4.7 paid subscribers over the past year.

Of the overall edtech segment, DataLabs’ “The Future Of India’s $2 Bn Edtech Opportunity Report 2020” found that capital inflows into the online test preparation and online certification segments were higher than other educational tools and programs, accounting for 88 percent of the total funding in edtech startups.

Clearly, 2020 was a defining year for edtech startups in India. So, although many startups are in the relatively early stage of development and growth, the online education and edtech market in India is a rapidly digitizing market. Furthermore, the growing use of edtech can provide tools to access online learning opportunities for many students, teachers, and educational institutions in India.

Challenges to Education and Online Opportunities in India

Even with the significant boom in edtech investment in and adoption of Indian technologies, there are still many challenges to accessing educational opportunities throughout the country.

In a nutshell, there is still space for India to support learning initiatives and degree levels within its population.

India hosts the world’s largest population of about 500 million in the age bracket of 5 to 24 years, which is the general age range for students in K-12 and college. However, the literacy rate in Indian urban centers stands at 85 percent, and in rural areas, at 69 percent as of early 2021.

In terms of tertiary degrees, while the expansion of post-secondary education has been recognized globally, only 14 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds in India held a tertiary degree in 2019 compared to the average 45 percent held by their counterparts in other countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recent Education at a Glance 2020 report.

Given the associated economic, employment, and social benefits commonly associated with and derived from higher degrees in India, there is further interest in pursuing greater educational opportunities in the country.

With this in mind, quality, cost, and access to educational opportunities persist as commonly cited challenges across the Indian education system. And these challenges to educational opportunities in India were further exacerbated when many schools in India were shut down.

On the ground, this can look like the need to pursue survival means over education. Teach for India Mentor and Fellow Medhavi Anand explained that with the closure of schools in India in March 2020, education was not always the first priority for some families. Many families, instead, had to prioritize immediate needs for survival, such as rent, food rations, medicine, cell phone data, and gas for vehicles.

After working with groups of students, teachers, staff, and external support groups to get a gauge on the situation and provide support for students and families in need, Anand said it could become more realistic for some students in stable conditions to move forward in pursuing learning online.

This requires digital access and a stable internet connection. In some cases, Anand said she and schools had to work with external providers to acquire this access for students and their families.

Although India is second only to China in terms of internet users by population, not everyone in India owns a smartphone yet, despite the growing jump in owners and users of digital devices currently and those projected over the next several years.

Even though these challenges in terms of accessibility and literacy with tech across demographics within the state still exist, the budding edtech environment provided a starting point for solutions for students, teachers, and educational institutions seeking solutions in the challenging pandemic period.

Given the investment environment, the stay-at-home events of 2020, the demand for educational advancement, and the existence of a large population, India remains a fertile space for startups, companies, and institutions to leverage edtech in creating opportunities to grow in the long-term.

How EdTech and Online Learning Supports Access to Educational Opportunities

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to inhibit traditional, in-person learning opportunities, online learning has come to the forefront. That said, it was a novel path for many people in the country.

“Online learning or blended learning is a concept that is new to most educators, students, and stakeholders in India, where more than 113 million students are enrolled in government or public schools. With a lack of access to the internet and smartphones, online education is a far-fetched reality,” Anand said.

In this regard, while there is a growing use of smartphones and internet users, some youth, the elderly, and impoverished groups have had little access to technological devices and digital tools. This is where fostering groups and creating support structures for students, parents, and educators have been critical to introducing online education tools.

“Partnerships with parents and siblings along with stakeholder investment has managed to bridge the [technological] literacy gap,” explained Anand.

Multimedia edtech tools have played a large role in facilitating learning opportunities as well at both macro and micro levels.

To strengthen the framework for education in the country, the Indian government has made moves to support online and distance education opportunities. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the Ministry of Electronics and Information technology launched over 50 direct-to-home educational television channels.

There have also been massive relocations of funds to support literacy, educational materials, and innovative initiatives to boost the growth of the distance education market through the adoption of new education techniques, such as e-learning and m-learning (electronic- and mobile-learning).

For educators and students on the ground, online tools and learning apps have facilitated continued engagement with education throughout prolonged stay-at-home orders.

“Leveraging platforms like television, radio, and printed learning packets for remote learning, educators and students starting their own youtube channels to maximize reach, driving learning through WhatsApp, Zoom calls, Google classrooms, and a wide range of learning apps are some ways in which educators have ensured that learning doesn’t stop,” said Anand. Gamifying lessons to maintain student interest and active learning with online material has also been helpful in supporting education outcomes.

Startups are also stressing the importance of online learning and reimagining even the in-classroom experience post-pandemic. BYJU’S founder Byju Raveendran said in an interview with Entrepreneur India that active learning is critical for students and that leveraging technology and interactive learning even after the pandemic is a good change in a country “obsessed with spoon-feeding (forceful learning).” He also commented that good edtech companies will continue to grow on the other side of the crisis.

With hope on the horizon as vaccines begin to roll out globally, online education has positively impacted remote learning for students and educators in India, and will likely continue to expand and facilitate learning opportunities even after the pandemic is over.

“I am a believer of imagination and spontaneity [and] I love teaching because I always leave my class with at least one inspiring story to tell,” said Anand. “As an educator, I celebrate my students’ gift of imagination, encourage student voice, and value self-expression. [So,] I dream of creating an education system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity.”