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Rashmi Pratap | Updated on January 10, 2018

It all adds up: Students at a corporation school in Chennai learn their maths lesson from a video with a Tamil voiceover produced by Khan Academy   -  R Ravindran

Spot the difference: Lessons are personalised to ensure each student learns at his/her own pace   -  Rajeev Bhatt

Byju Raveendran: Founder and CEO Byju’s

Sandeep Bapna, Managing Director, Khan Academy India

Meet the online tutors who are in the business of taking education to the doorstep of thousands of Indians left behind by the formal system

Rajasthan’s Kherla Khurd village has a population of just over 2,000. As the nearest bus service is 5km away, the village’s children can study only in the local Swami Vivekanand Government Model School. The school lacks basic requirements such as chairs and tables, but the Rajasthan government is providing the students world-class online educational content through a tie-up with the US-based Khan Academy. The students use tablets to access the content, which has been aligned to the Indian curriculum. Within a few months, teachers say the students’ grasp of various subjects has improved visibly.

In Budgam, Kashmir Valley, Bilal Ahmad Khoja spends his evenings teaching chemistry to students from across India. His house is covered by snow during winter, but such extreme weather doesn’t affect his teaching schedule as he uses Vedantu — a live online tutoring platform. Khoja, who has already completed more than 1,150 sessions with Vedantu, sometimes shares pictures of his snow-covered house with his students, most of whom have never seen snowfall before.

With technology melting boundaries of all kinds, education too has metamorphosed — from a privilege of the rich to an aspiration for teeming millions, and from the four walls of a classroom to one’s own living room. Dronacharya may have demanded Eklavya’s right thumb as gurudakshina, or fee, in the Mahabharata, but today’s hi-tech gurus are way more reasonable. They range from the non-profit Khan Academy to online tutoring businesses such as Vedantu and Byju’s, the latter also credited with creating India’s largest learning app. Their business models may vary, but the goal is common — reach out to as many students as possible and, simultaneously, glamorise the teaching profession.

Vamsi Krishna, an IITian who co-founded Vedantu with three friends in 2014, says, “Education today has become aspirational. Parents and students see it as one of the important levers through which they can change their standards of life.”

Such expectations are too often belied in a country where the average pupil-teacher ratio is 27:1 at the secondary level (according to the human resource development ministry). This average implies there could be classrooms in rural India with no students and others with up to 70 in the bigger towns. Currently at 260 million, school enrolments are expected to peak to 335 million by 2020.

“Even though we have the largest K-12 (kindergarten to Std XII) education system, we consistently rank low in all global education assessments due to poor access to good teachers, one-size-fits-all teaching approach and learning driven by fear of exams. The main idea behind starting Byju’s was to make learning effective, engaging and personalised for everyone,” says Byju Raveendran, the company’s founder and CEO.

Tech backbone

So what are these companies doing differently? For starters, they are using technology to make learning more visual, interactive and easier. “Integrating technology with education not only increases engagement but also simplifies the way students learn. Technology today offers a combination of teachers, video lessons and interactive games, which can be delivered through a personalised learning platform,” says Raveendran.

Sandeep Bapna, MD at Khan Academy India, knows that well. “We are constantly looking at how technology can be more ingrained in our classrooms and education systems,” he says.

Khan Academy has a YouTube channel where students can learn all subjects with the help of specially produced videos. The organisation’s website supplements the videos with a host of practice exercises, progress reports and other teaching tools. “Students can also take diagnostic tests to assess their learning levels and decide the level at which they need to start,” Bapna explains.

As for Vedantu, technology facilitates everything that regular classroom teaching cannot. Its founders had started Lakshya Forum for Competition, a coaching service for exams, in 2006. Soon they struggled to meet the infrastructure costs and find good teachers, among other challenges. In 2012, Mumbai-based MT Educare acquired Lakshya, but Krishna and his friends had by then learned a valuable lesson on the vital role of technology. In 2014, Vedantu was launched as a marketplace for teachers, to bring them face-to-face with needy students online through whiteboard, audio and video technologies.

Glamour at the blackboard

“Teaching is primarily a regulated profession (with fixed pay scales); and even in areas where it is not regulated, the physical constraints are such that it doesn’t attract the best talent. The professional attractiveness is low, so we want to glamorise the profession of teaching,” says Krishna.

Vedantu does that by employing teachers not on a salary but by letting them keep 70-80 per cent of the fees received from students. It works with two models — the premium one-on-one, where a teacher coaches a single student at rates ranging from ₹300 to ₹1,000 per hour; and the one-to-few model, where each teacher is assigned up to five students and the charge ranges from ₹100 to ₹180 per hour. “The charges are based on the teacher’s qualification, reviews and ratings. If you are good, sky is the limit,” adds Krishna.

Khan Academy takes a different approach. Its revenues are zero. Its YouTube channel and app are ad-free and the website also offers free content. It is funded through philanthropic capital and micro-donations from users. That hasn’t stopped it from reaching students across the globe.

“One, technology provides us a huge leverage. By being available on mobile, we can reach a lot more people,” says Bapna. With absolutely no marketing, the company has grown through word of mouth, he adds. Its global team has just 150 people, thereby keeping costs in check, even while its reach is 20 million students worldwide.

In the last 18 months, Khan Academy has trebled its reach in India — about 15 lakh users a month in 70-80 cities. “In India, we see immense scope for public-private partnership,” Bapna says. A pilot is already underway in Rajasthan’s government schools. In the online model, students access Khan Academy’s resources through its app and practice exercises. Offline, students are given tablets, and a local classroom server (on a laptop) provides the content without need for internet access. “This is the first step that will help us get to many more users,” Bapna says.

His belief is not unfounded. Tulika Saini, deputy commissioner, Rajasthan Council of Secondary Education, remarks that with the newer teaching methods there is a marked improvement in the ability of students to grasp concepts. “We are seeing a lot of difference on the ground. It is heartening to know that teachers, too, are improving their own skills with help from technology,” she says.

Personalisation for growth

Even as Khan Academy prepares to extend its footprint in India, the homegrown Byju’s, flush with capital from marquee investors, is readying for an international entry. IFC, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Sequoia Capital and China’s Tencent Holdings, among others, have invested in this venture. “With the recent rounds of funding, our focus will be to create similar learning products for the international markets. We want to capitalise on our core strengths — creating high-quality learning modules, videos and interactives across grades,” says Raveendran.

Confident that the Byju’s Learning App is a pioneering one in the global market, he says, “We strongly believe that such a product can come out of India. We have the required talent and capabilities to create a product that will make students fall in love with learning.”

For this to happen, however, personalisation of content is essential, to ensure each student learns at his/her own pace. “Byju’s learning programme integrates classes from the best of the teachers, assessments and assignments. It creates personalised learning journeys for individual students based on their proficiency levels and capabilities,” Raveendran says.

At Khan Academy, apart from diagnostic tests for students to assess their individual proficiencies, teachers can use analytics to gauge the class’s preparedness and tailor instructions accordingly. “That allows the teacher to spend more time on areas in which the students are struggling,” Bapna says.

Vedantu has taken personalisation to the doorstep of both teachers and students. In the last two academic years alone, it has quadrupled its annual growth in terms of two key metrics — students and number of hours. It recently crossed 2.5 lakh hours of tutoring.

Krishna and his team come with a strong perception that teachers are at the core of learning. “We want to empower them and make them reach out to more students... it is not only the subject matter but also motivation, values and softer attributes that generate interest in a child.”

And only the right teacher can get a child to love a subject.

Published on September 01, 2017

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