How to make digital education work in India?

[Editorial notes: Digital education is the new ecommerce, but things are different in India and here is an interesting take by Nimit Kumar, founder of Unirow on how to make digital education work in India] 

Internet is a great enabler. Is has an ability to make quality education accessible. A teacher can share her knowledge with thousands of students. While this sounds grand, like most things, execution and interaction is the key. The hottest thing after e-commerce in the Indian startup ecosystem is education. If VC investment were an indication of the value of a sector, education would definitely be among the top 3. The question is how much of value have we created in this space?

When I started Samuday Technologies, my intent was to build a great product that could enable better collaboration in areas beyond the enterprise – such as education, healthcare and CRM. About 10 months into the company, I understood that problem in Ed-Tech – low (actual) adoption rates among students. We realigned significantly at that point. While you can build the coolest and smartest softwares, usage levels are going to be frustratingly low because students and teachers are swamped with existing problems.

One of the reasons for low adoption is expecting significant change in user behavior. I am a big believer in building products that fit into existing workflows instead of expecting changes in user behavior and workflows. Here are some of my learnings from my experience in the education space.

Based on the nature of their services/products, education companies in India can be broadly grouped under the following three types:

  1. Digital content providers: They focus on developing learning content and assessment engines that can be used for self-learning or in the classroom.
  2. Software technology providers: These companies create technology that can be used for enabling digital learning. This includes learning management systems (LMS), assessment systems (content agnostic), multimedia and virtual classroom solutions.
  3. Infrastructure companies: These are the big boys. They manage end-to-end digital infrastructure at schools and colleges.

The Indian Education Space – Consumer Segments

  1. K-12 and Undergraduate: Students are primarily dependent on their parents who are in most cases the decision makers of investment in education. This might appear to be a big disruption opportunity, but decisions are often based on perception, brand and proven quality. Think about this like a bureaucratic enterprise – the user and decision makers are different and they have a generation gap! Additionally, there is this problem of certifications. Unless content gets certified/recommended by one of the education boards, adoption of content continues to be a challenge. It is not surprising that adoption in this space has been slow and has majorly happened through curriculum changes by the schools that encourage digital learning methods.
  2. Skills and Training: As students graduate from colleges with poor placement records, there is a drive among students to improve their skills and be more employable. This also includes individuals hoping to increase their career opportunities and skills. There are some awesome companies operating in this space and making a big difference. Considering aspirational reasons, individuals are often willing to spend for these programs.
  3. Preparatory learning: This is the group of students who are preparing for exams like GMAT, CAT or UPSC. These are individuals in their 20s with a drive to take their career to the next level and are willing to adopt new technologies to make it happen. This is a segment which can decide fast and expects quality.

Finding a needle in the haystack and the problem of a dream

  1. Too much content: There are so many content providers that content has become irrelevant. After all, how many cool ways can there be to solve an algebra equation or determine the value of ‘x’! Content has become a commodity on cheap Android tablets. What a student needs is a guide to help her fence her way through the world of concepts. Adaptive learning, gamification and getting help from ‘real’ teachers are possible solutions.
  2. The value of a skill is in it’s scarcity: Skill development companies are scaling up. As a result, skills are commoditized commoditized and no longer an edge. With limited jobs availability, having new skills are not adding great value and often frustrating the consumer. The skill industry needs to measure itself more vigorously. The approach needs to begin from creating more jobs and then training individuals to be employable.
  3. Change is difficult, especially when it is ill explained: Why do you need Ed-Tech at all? Are we trying to solve a problem or selling a dream? We have reviewed usage of Learning Management Systems in some of the best business schools. The results were disappointing – with almost no traffic on these websites. A student-teacher workflow needs to be understood and Ed-Tech should align with solving problems in these workflows. There are enough challenges in existing systems and a lot of it can be addressed through Ed-Tech.
  4. Students need a ‘real’ teacher: The value of a good teacher cannot be replaced by softwares. How can we make good teachers more accessible and approachable. It is not enough to record videos and share them online, or to beam a live lecture on the internet. A student who is struggling to understand concepts needs a helping hand in times of distress. When examinations are close, the panic needs to be handled closely. A lot of this can be assisted through collaboration technologies, but the approach needs to bring a real teacher in front of the student.

There is no easy answer to many of these questions. However, if we start focussing on real world problems and identify inefficiencies in existing workflows, we have a far better chance of being relevant. The challenge for product developers like me is to find solutions to problems without compromising the interactivity and personalization of the real world. This is a challenge in product development that we must meet.

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