The swiftly changing, educational landscape in the country is largely propelled by the advancements in educational technology, such that the vested potential in startups and medium scale enterprises has earned them a spot amongst the high rollers achieving unicorn status at an unprecedented pace. Such blitz growth has made Edtech mainstream as opposed to being just another alternative in previous years.
Last year brought a flurry of record-breaking venture capital to the sector. data shows that Edtech startups around the world raised $10.76 billion last year, compared to $4.7 billion in 2019. While reporting delays could change this total, VC dollars have more than doubled since the pandemic began. In the United States, Edtech startups raised $1.78 billion in venture capital across 265 deals during 2020, compared to $1.32 billion the prior year.
Considering the market indicators, it is certain that post pandemic education would carry a marked difference from the pre pandemic era. Research suggests that the evolution of post-pandemic education will be complex, if not aggressively competitive among the growing legion of well-capitalized Edtech companies. Contrary to popular belief, Higher education didn’t combust like some expected, and today, many predict that K-12 students will return to pre-COVID formats after vaccinations are widespread, however with slightly higher influence of technologically enabled solutions that would help maintain learning continuity in the long run.
Since remote learning has become more familiar, what will Edtech look like when students go back to schools and employees to their offices?
For K12, use of digital products and platforms will now be very “normal”. This will drive home the usage of some products traditionally used only in schools. A classic example of the same would be students of all ages that are now very ‘hands on’ with zoom, this can pave the way for more zoom based synchronous learning offerings including extracurricular learning like music, dance etc. Schools are now fully wired which could lead to the emergence of home-based learning programs supported by the administration themselves.
Looking beyond the K12 space to the job market, it was estimated that as much as 1/3 of the US workforce would need to change jobs by 2030 prior to the pandemic due to the widening skill gap within the workforce. However, it is now expected that employers will take on more responsibility for reskilling their current workforce, and that training will become job-embedded rather than an ad-hoc, challenge redressal driven effort. As employers look to provide more skills training (rather than compliance training), it is certain that more will come from external sources and that much of this training will be provided online and during work hours. The fact that CEOs say they are unprepared to meet the reskilling challenge with existing internal resources further supports the fact that Edtech will dominate the learning landscape virtually across every domain.
So, what opportunities and challenges do new and early stage startups need to face as the ecosystem matures?
As Edtech goes mainstream with each passing year, it is clear that companies that wish to operate in the space will consistently need to innovate and differentiate themselves overtime. As the landscape becomes increasingly competitive, Edtech companies need to stay away from ‘me-too’ solutions and design original and authentic solutions for the complex Indian market. The reducing ambit of fresh opportunities makes it increasingly difficult for competitors to carve out a sustainable niche for themselves.
For companies focused on K-12 students, it’s still really challenging to sell into schools and school districts because of the long sales cycle. This will likely become even harder, as local and state regulations stiff up. For companies that are targeting adult learners, the biggest hurdle continues to be customer acquisition and building a brand that learners can actually trust. As the space starts to mature, consumers are getting more aware of the right questions to ask and are less fooled by clever marketing.
An upcoming opportunity however, lies in the ‘free till employed’ space where not many companies are presently operating. The model works best for Higher Ed candidates that are on the market for employment, however do not possess the necessary skillset required to achieve their dream job. Players in the space provide the requisite skill training, and do not charge in return of their service, instead take a portion of the salaries of their students once they find jobs. Innovative models such as these will certainly grow exponentially in the coming years and will further open the doors for learners with international aspirations.
What about other factors such as a dated regulatory landscape and lack of parent education that could inhibit Edtech expansion to its full potential?
The current education system is geared towards teaching and testing knowledge at every level as opposed to teaching skills. Knowledge — read as information overload — is largely forgotten after exams are over. Still, year after year, Indian students focus on just cramming information. They have no choice, really. The best crammers are rewarded by the system. This is one of the fundamental flaws of India’s education system.
Indian parents need to be taught to trust the new, digital system of education. This requires central and state education boards to make fundamental changes and adopt them across school curriculums. Once the government provides an impetus to alternative learning in schools, only then can Edtech startups actively look at designing products for such learning and create a real impact on educational standards.
Globally, tech startups have been able to disrupt and expand markets across sectors only in those countries where the business framework is not restricted by government regulations and there is no resistance to change. In India, leading startups such as Paytm, Flipkart, Ola, Oyo, Swiggy, Bigbasket, Grofers, and many others have been able to disrupt various sectors by creating niche markets within the sectors. They not only capitalized on the traditional market space but also increased the market size of their respective sectors, creating future prospects by modernizing the segments and also expanding them for businesses to grow and innovate further.
Edtech startups, too, should get the socio-economic support they need to create the space for mainstream learning in the Indian market, else they will keep fighting for a share of the already existing, constant market size.
To sum up, while Edtech had been steadily making its presence felt over the past few years, with assisted learning tools that leverage robotics, ML etc., for developing cognitive learning among children, it is only now that it has found widespread appeal and mass adoption. The lockdown has also helped transform Edtech from an ‘optional’ tool adopted by elitist schools to a ‘mandatory’ mode of continuous learning, especially for schools, who have adopted it wholeheartedly. From facilitating teaching of regular term curriculum via virtual classrooms or recorded lectures for K12 students to offering professionals the opportunity to upgrade their skills, technology adopting in the education space has allowed allowing everyone with an internet connection and a smart device, to access knowledge and learn. Coupled with accelerated pace of innovations, and growing interest of investors in the Indian Edtech segment, the Indian education system is on an aggressive growth path, well equipped to create a more aware, more enabled and more responsible citizens of the future.