EDTECH HAS never quite fulfilled its promise to galvanise poorly performing school systems. Past investments in educational technology often failed because of badly specified hardware and clunky software, which put off potential users. But as with much else, the closures forced on the world by the covid-19 pandemic has put pressure on schools, parents and pupils to embrace innovation. Has its moment arrived?
The picture is inevitably mixed. The covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the digital divide. The poorest students living in places with the creakiest digital infrastructure have been least able to take advantage of virtual schooling. But what has been achieved in many places has nonetheless been remarkable. Nowhere more so than in India, where more than 4,000 edtech start-ups, attracting over $2bn of venture-capital funding, have emerged in the past five years. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” says a teacher at a school in Chandigarh in Punjab that has embraced edtech. “It came as a blessing in a bleak situation and made a world of difference.”
Two big hurdles have confronted edtech in the past: adoption and access. India’s severe lockdown, leaving the country’s 1.5m schools and 250m K-12 pupils (from kindergarten to 18) desperate to maintain at least some learning, provided the spur to overcome the former. And cheap smartphones and tablets, combined with some of the lowest data prices in the world, have gone a long way towards solving the access problem. At the beginning of the year, before covid-19 hit, India already had more than 500m smartphone users, which meant that 77% of Indians had access to the mobile internet. That number has since risen significantly.
When covid shut down India’s schools, low-income families that had regarded smartphones as a luxury for entertainment suddenly saw them as a necessity for education, notes Shankar Maruwada, the chief executive of EkStep, a not-for-profit group (established by Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Infosys, an IT-sourcing giant, and his wife Rohini) that built Diksha, a national digital teaching-and-learning platform.
India’s smartphone revolution was made possible in part by the launch in 2015 of the cheap Jio network. But there is a caveat. In poorer families, phones are shared. Children may have only an hour or so each day to follow online lessons and send their work back to teachers. Some children still have no access at all, especially in rural areas.
Edtech falls into three main categories. There is software for teachers, such as TeacherApp, which has enrolled nearly 1m teachers and has 10,000 average daily users. There is also tech for parents, such as Top Parent, an app which assists home education and has been downloaded more than 135,000 times in the past six months. Third and most important, is tech for pupils, ranging from software that helps prepare them for tests to programs that use artificial intelligence to help children skills at their own pace (known as personalised adaptive learning or PAL).
One such system, Mindspark, has been developed over more than a decade and now has a database of over 45,000 test questions. The interactive software packages continuous assessment of each pupil’s progress with instructional games, videos and classroom activities. Students learn through a constant process of explanation and feedback. The software adapts to the student’s level. It is designed to enable over-burdened and often under-trained teachers to move away from the rote learning common in Indian classrooms towards “teaching at the right level”.
Byju’s, a different kind of learning platform, now valued at nearly $11bn, making it India’s second-most valuable startup, offers personalised tutoring apps from what it claims to be India’s best teachers. Parents get monthly updates on their children’s progress. It has about 65m users. Most of them use a limited service free of charge but about 4m pay an average $135 a year for personalised mentoring. “It is extremely engaging and the videos are visually attractive. Mentors give extra attention to areas where I struggle, and take great care in explaining things,” says Kriti, an 11th-year student (ie, aged 16-17) from Chandigarh who has used Byju’s for several years. “During the lockdown many of my friends started using these programs because they could not go to private tutors. I think after the pandemic is over, most of the students will continue to use Byju’s instead of going back to their physical tuitions.”
Whereas Byju’s has mostly focused on better-off students in big cities, ConveGenius, social enterprise, offers a PAL platform to government-run and budget private schools. It aims to help the 90% of Indian children who are not at the appropriate level of learning for their age because of poor teaching and overcrowded mixed-ability classrooms. Its chatbot can run on Android, WhatsApp or the web. Third-party evaluations suggest that ConveGenius has cut the number of pupils struggling to learn foundational skills from more than 50% to 23%, while the number of advanced learners has more than doubled. Others suggest students can gain as much as two academic years of learning in a single year.
Before lockdown, ConveGenius was growing steadily with about 500,000 pupils in 5,400 schools, under a deal with state governments. When the schools closed, Jairaj Bhattacharya, its CEO, turned directly to parents and pupils. Launched in April using WhatsApp and mapped to the state curriculum, its consumer product now has 4.5m users. Mr Bhattacharya says that the deal with state governments, such as Madhya Pradesh, is that ConveGenius provides its service free but owns all the “customer” data. He claims that, with the platform capable of handling 100m users, there is plenty of potential for monetising.
Some firms, such as ClassKlap, combine software for pupils, teachers and parents. Its IMAX package, sold to more than 1,200 budget private schools, provides apps for children to learn at home, for teachers to improve their skills and lesson planning, and for school principals to manage their business.
Most schools in India will not reopen until the end of the Diwali holiday in mid-November. As they gradually do so, the relief of children and teachers at sharing a classroom again will be powerful. But the use of edtech to help teachers teach, children learn and administrators understand what is happening in their schools has been accelerated by about five years, according to Varun Kumar, ClassKlap’s founder.
An important development, notes Sridhar Rajagopalan, the chief learning officer of Educational Initiatives, the creators of Mindspark, is that teachers now regard edtech as an increasingly useful tool to make their lives better, rather than as a threat to their status and livelihoods. What is more, the central government in Delhi and state administrations are enthusiastic proponents of digital technology to help them oversee education systems and improve standards. In the state of Gujarat, for example, with the onset of the pandemic every textbook for the curriculum was given a QR code on Diksha that teachers and children could scan and receive through their smartphones. Test papers were also sent out each week, to be completed by 4.3m pupils, corrected by teachers and the marks recorded, all by scanning.
Vinod Rao, Gujarat’s education secretary, says that the system allows his department to see and analyse performance in granular detail across the state. The data enable individual assessment of a large majority of students (Dr Rao reckons that only about 20% lack access to phones), which will be used to target remedial work on those who most need it.
Girin Beeharry, the director of global education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an NGO, believes that the future of schools will be a hybrid. Classroom teaching will be blended with digital tools, especially teacher-facing apps that “go with the grain of the system”, to make learning more engaging and the system more resilient. Mr Beeharry likes an approach that Bridge International Academies (BIA), a once-controversial school operator in Africa, is pioneering with impressive results in Nigeria’s Edo and Lagos states. BIA has contracted with those governments to manage and reform almost entire school systems by applying its technology and pedagogy to support public-sector teachers. BIA is hoping to interest Indian states in similar deals.
The next test
For all that edtech has ridden to the rescue during the covid crisis, questions about its real impact remain. Compared with conventional interventions by teachers, which tend to be focused on pulling up the worst-performing pupils, edtech lifts the standards of the whole class. But quality varies. Adaptive learning systems, such as Mindspark and ConveGenuis, tend to do much better than other forms of edtech. An outfit like Byju’s can point to relatively affluent subscribers voting with their wallets.
Whether edtech can deliver a system-wide revolution will remain uncertain until it is tried at real, statewide, scale. Many changes will be required for that to happen: quality standards need to be established; digital infrastructure must be put in place; teachers must receive the training needed to use the learning systems effectively; and parents must have confidence that the prospects of their children are improved.
EkStep’s Mr Maruwada likens the effect of the pandemic to that of the second world war as a spur to innovation. “Covid has been a trigger for frenzied activity. The effects will be completely transforming in the long term but they will be non-linear and are difficult to predict. But critically, states are now realising the scale at which edtech needs to be applied.”