It is good to know that the Ministry of Education is seized of the matter regarding new-age ‘ed-tech’ companies using sharp practices to market online courses and tuition services to parents, which is creating a furore on social media. What’s surprising is that despite being aware of this, the Ministry is content with merely issuing an advisory that cautions parents to ‘be careful’ about signing up for such services.

Prima facie , marketing tactics used by leading ed-tech players may seem no different from those used by other e-commerce platforms to woo clients. Ed-tech platforms acquire their first-time users through the ‘freemium’ model, where students are offered free trial on a basic course with the promise of ‘easy refunds’ if unhappy. Once hooked, they are nudged to upgrade to paid services or add-ons that are essential to completing the course. To convince parents that these expensive applications offer value-for-money, the child is supplied with a free device such as a locked tablet with pre-loaded content, that can be accessed only for the specific purpose. To give students the impression that they’re getting personalised service, they’re allowed to chat ‘live’ with their teachers; though it is often bots that power these chats. Certain sales tactics used by these platforms are not in the standard e-commerce playbook and are openly exploitative. Unlike most e-commerce goods or services that are pitched to digitally savvy, affluent customers who know fully well what they’re getting into, ed-tech platforms promise exaggerated learning outcomes to under-privileged, non-English speaking parents who are digital newbies, playing on their insecurities about traditional schooling. Two, it is appalling to know that ed-tech sales agents also exploit the poor financial literacy of their customers and get them to take loans and activate auto-debit bank mandates to fund their child’s ‘free’ learning app without being aware of what they’re signing up for. Three, while conventional e-commerce platforms put customers first through friendly refund policies and strong grievance redressal, sales agents for ed-tech products seem to leave unhappy parents high and dry, with no avenues for either escalating complaints or initiating refunds once the ‘sale’ is clinched.

Many of the doubtful practices in this nascent industry are made possible by the fact that it functions in a regulatory vacuum. Presently, the UGC’s Open and Distance Learning Programmes and Online Programmes Regulations apply only to recognised universities. The new Consumer Protection (E-commerce) Rules 2020 are clearly targeted at sellers of goods and services, ignoring aspects unique to ed-tech. Clearly, the Centre needs to go beyond issuing advisories and must get down to the job of regulating online learning platforms to protect vulnerable students. The government apart, private equity players who fund ed-tech firms based solely on user numbers, and celebrities who endorse them, may also need to exercise greater due diligence before championing this cause.