Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

The future of EdTech: gaps and learnings from implementation during COVID-19

The EDge Editorial Team May 2020

In the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the education system faces a new set of challenges and opportunities. While school closures in India has pushed out 250 million children from brick-and-mortar classrooms, the clamour for digital learning is intensifying. Educational Technology (EdTech) is witnessing a spike in both usage and acceptance. We initiated a series of discussions with government officials, industry leaders, and experts to understand the hurdles to wider adoption of EdTech and how to overcome them.

In this interview, we speak with Prachi Windlass, Director of Education at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in India.

CSF: Given the current situation, governments, academic institutions, teachers and parents are switching to digital learning. Do you think this switch is actually happening across India? Were we ready as a country to make this migration in terms of infrastructure, technical know-how, comfort with tech, etc?

Prachi: The COVID-19 outbreak has precipitated a global crisis the likes of which we have never seen before. Each and every sector has been impacted and everyone has been forced to re-think and explore new ways of living and learning. The education sector too has been forced to change to online teaching and learning. Circumstances demand strategic re-thinking and modifications in the learning modules, which can be addressed by the use of technology. The pandemic called for quick adaptability to this new normal and technology has become an enabler.

Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Jharkhand — states that were already working towards school transformation —swiftly directed their teachers to form WhatsApp groups to help parents and students transition to a #GharPeSchool model, and are supporting their schools with daily calendars mapped to student learning competencies, and guidelines for structured 1:1 weekly phone interactions between teachers and students. Recognizing that home digital access is often limited, some states are also adding other mediums like TV and radio. These responses needed agility, outcome orientation and a culture of accountability. These tenets cannot be established overnight, and therefore, the response has been strongest in states which had already been working on transforming their education systems: deploying modern communication channels like email and WhatsApp groups, shifting focus from textbook completion to competency attainment and strengthening accountability through frequent assessments and follow-ups.

Some of the content companies in this space have been simply inspirational and have come up with innovative solutions. For instance, ConveGenius launched a doubt-solving facility on WhatsApp for the government school users in Andhra Pradesh. This is giving students constant access to teachers, and the database of doubts is helping teachers improve their instruction. It is innovation and support like this that is helping children navigate the transition.

India’s ability for quick adaptation of technology is also visible in applications like Tik-Tok which has users from across social groups some of whom have become content creators on the platform. A lot of ed-tech platforms are collaborating with these application providers to reach a wider net of audience.

CSF: Has COVID-19 affected investors with a stake in EdTech? Have there been any particular learnings? Do you think funders will approach EdTech differently now?

Prachi: The pandemic has multiplied the economic shocks on the whole ecosystem, but it has also created opportunities and triggered more activity. EdTech is an example of that. More than USD 50 mln of investments have happened since 23rd March. While this list is dominated by older players whose conversations were already at advanced stages, it is also interesting to see new companies and new investors in this list like Lido Learning and Classplus.

Historically, low-fee private schools have been the slowest to adopt technology, resulting in low investor interest in B2B models. However, the lockdown is showing the rate of adoption can be changed overnight. One of our portfolio companies, ClassKlap, serves 1000+ APS, had 50% of its schools download and begin using its core app within two weeks of the lockdown! Enguru, the English learning app, has seen a 200% spike in attendance on its live classes.

While it remains to be seen how such spikes will be sustained and monetized fully, it has piqued the interest of the investors. They will assess and evaluate how this segment will evolve, and a lot will depend on which models will have the ability to penetrate the market and reach the maximum no. of people.

CSF: What according to you are essential skills that India's young adults will need now more than ever, and how can EdTech help?

Prachi: We anticipate a fundamental shift taking place in the market, and opportunities of tomorrow will depend on the extent of technology disruption. Roles in care economy, education, healthcare, technology will evolve further and will demand skilled manpower. Industry 4.0 will gain momentum from here on.

It will be hard to predict the range of skills that students will need, but what can be easily predicted is the speed and scale at which reskilling will be required and ed-tech will have a huge role to play here. Our students will need the ability to become self-learners to fully leverage the power of ed-tech to reshape their future.

CSF: How would you assess the efforts of the central government and the state governments in responding with EdTech to the education crisis triggered by COVID-19? Has it highlighted specific gaps in terms of implementation, scalability, or even affordability that needs urgent addressal?

Prachi: The central government has set the vision by laying emphasis on programs like Digital India, Skill India, and more recently VidyaDaan 2.0. Many state governments have been quick adapters and have responded swiftly to halt the crisis, especially in the education sector. Some states like Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana have done really well and some are learning from the best examples.

There are several lessons from the early responses and successful implementation of EdTech in these three states :

  • Familiar is simple and scalable: All of them are using WhatsApp extensively. Such common platforms provide familiarity and simplicity, which is the best starting point for first time edtech users like our teachers and students.
  • Technology should be used to empower teachers: Students and parents rely heavily on their teachers for content and direction, more so when the daily face-to-face interaction has gone away. Technology should be leveraged to increase Teachers’ connectivity and efficacy.
  • Structure is critical for students: With the regimen of timetables and school schedules going away, effort can still be made to provide some structure to students. Rajasthan’s example of fixing the hours of home-schooling is providing the structure that kids need in these times of uncertainty.
CSF: In 2017, India had the third highest level of investment globally in EdTech, behind only the United States and China. Indian EdTech startups received close to $700 million in funding in 2018. However, most of the investment goes into developing products for the high- and middle-income households. How can we incentivize for-profit companies to develop more products for the low-income segment?

Prachi: India has been among the fastest adopters and adapters of technology. The current crisis is showing that digital learning can be effective. That said, there are a few things that need to be addressed on priority: ease of use, content with native elements, and tools that encourage parental involvement.

We also saw for the first time that the number of internet users in rural India is more than urban users. As the number of rural internet users surge, the for- profit companies will increasingly create content for the low-income segment.

The extended lockdown period might also expedite the mainstreaming of innovative funding strategies like performance- linked financing and impact bonds. With limited financial resources, we will be looking to maximize and increase the social impact returns on our investments, which is an inherent advantage of these financial instruments. For example, our pilot with Varthana and affordable private schools shows that 50% of the schools increased learning outcomes with a financial incentive. Dell Foundation is looking at scaling this approach through more financial intermediaries and education service providers. We are also looking at extending the approach to other sectors like skilling and employment.

So, there could be more than one way of incentivizing for-profit companies to develop products for the underserved communities.

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