Edtech, masterclass in hype?

TR Vivek | Updated on November 25, 2020 Published on November 25, 2020

The model isn’t inclusive and will wreck the school system

The public attention and investor money pouring into education technology (edtech) ventures is reminiscent of the buzz around e-commerce more than a decade ago. Since 2014, it is estimated that nearly 4,500 edtech start-ups have sprung up. The Covid-time imperative of remote delivery of classroom instruction has turned 2020 a veritable annus mirabilis for a clutch of edtech start-ups that target students from middle-class families.

This year alone, edtech has attracted more than $1 billion in venture capital and private equity investments — far more than any other start-up sector — with Byju’s alone accounting for nearly $750 million. The company is now valued at close to $12 billion, and the edtech sector has several other “unicorns” in the making.

Amidst the giddy flow of investments and the gush of media attention, questions about the sustainability and efficacy of edtech gets drowned out. Is edtech indeed a silver bullet that can help rescue India from crises that plague every level of its education system, or is it one of those seasonal fads that will eventually fade away? Also, given the disparities in India when it comes to access to technology, would edtech not end up increasing the education inequity?

So far, the big players flush with marquee investor funds, have been successful in building the narrative that edtech has not only ensured some form of education continuity for India’s 250 million school children during the Covid-19 lockdown, but also has the potential to transform the landscape of learning. The dramatic boom-to-bust stories of high profile ventures such as Educomp that pioneered technology-aided “smart classrooms” nearly a decade ago seem a distant memory no one is keen to recollect.

Field study

In such times, a recent field study conducted by researchers at Azim Premji University on the efficacy of online education during the Covid-19 lockdown makes for a sobering read. The study covering 1,522 teachers in as many public schools in 26 districts across six States found online learning solutions to be rather ineffective. The use of edtech led to the exclusion of most of the children who lacked access to technology.

According to the study, more than 80 per cent of the teachers said it was impossible to maintain any emotional connection with the children and 90 per cent reported that no meaningful assessment of learning was possible. Besides the big problem access, teachers themselves were poorly trained in using edtech tools.

“Possibly, state education departments have also realised the folly of their initial misadventures with online teaching-learning models as they have now started shifting to more direct interactions with public school children through teacher visits and community-based classes,” the report added.

The advocates of edtech contend that this was a case of poor implementation and not a failure of the model itself.

Three broad categories

In India, edtech ventures operate in three broad categories: interventions for students in class 1 to 12, or the K12 system; helping senior school students to prepare for professional education entrance exams such as JEE and NEET; and skills development courses for those in the job market.

It is those operating in the first two categories that are raking in big-ticket investments. The advertising blitz carried out by some — from sponsoring the Indian cricket team to being prominent spenders in the Indian Premier League (IPL) — on the back of investor funding at generous valuations has helped to sustain the hype around edtech.

The sales strategy of some of these companies that involves preying upon the fear of missing out, or not doing the best for their children, among parents has copped a lot of criticism. Many private schools too have begun to cite the use of edtech to justify an increase in school fee even at a time when household incomes are battered.

Buzz phrases such as personalised adaptive learning, of the use of artificial and machine learning tools that allow teachers to impart instructions to students based on their individual learning capabilities, have attracted several governments keen on tackling poor foundational literacy. As things stand, implementing such programmes at scale are pretty expensive and cash-strapped States keep turning to philanthropic capital.

Reckless public investments in edtech and reliance on it instead of improving pedagogy and teaching standards to address the foundational learning crisis could end up inflating the valuation of a handful of companies in the short term, and wrecking the school system in the long term.

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Published on November 25, 2020
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