2020 saw one of the biggest crises in education due to the pandemic that triggered a record inflow of over $2 billion in edtech space. Byju’s, valued at $12 billion acquired Aakash Educational Services for $1 billion and Amazon and Google, like Facebook’s Founder, announced big plans for India in this space.
On one hand, such announcements are a celebration of tremendous success in value creation by young Indian entrepreneurs in a very short time. On the other, it takes ideas, innovation, foresight, passion and perseverance to build a successful enterprise and many young Indian entrepreneurs have built successful businesses we all can be proud of. Even as we celebrate these milestones, there is a need to be cautious. We need to peel the onion and look closely at two fundamental questions.
Education for profit
Firstly, is it right to start seeing education as a business for people to invest in for huge returns? Are the days of ‘Education for Good’ getting replaced by ‘Education for Profit’? Will Institutes of excellence like the IITs and IIMs also be measured by market cap in the future? Will our schools want to break away, set up chains and ask for free market pricing so that they too can attract investors?
There is also a moral argument that if the crisis is an opportunity then can a basic necessity like education becomes a commodity just to multiply wealth? Or should we view it an opportunity to transform the broken education systems by choosing to respond to it in a way that demonstrates a concern for all- not just a few.
If we measure success in education through the lens of profit, or investment for profit numbers, the consequences will be quite negative. Having worked at the bottom of the education pyramid for the last 7 years, I am biased and strongly believe that education is not just an aspirational commodity but a fundamental right, thus it becomes necessary to be conscious of the inequalities triggered by such changes. We must stop and reflect so that we do celebrate such great achievements, however we shall also work hard to correct the existing system so that the education gap between the haves and have-nots is reduced.
Old wine, new bottle
The second question to be debated is equally important. Is the buzz around edtech a case of technology-led disruption or is it old wine in a new shinning bottle, reminiscent of the earlier models of tuition centers and coaching academies that held a promise of a better tomorrow if you can pay? Has something fundamentally changed in the way we educate today or is it a case of celebration of no other choice? Let me explain.
The primary challenge in COVID was to create a sense of learning through muted mics and switched off cameras. Teachers struggled with online decorum, discipline management and preparing for classes. Further, there were several instances of tech-related privacy issues and online classes saw greater involvement – and, in some cases, interference – by parents. Children, on the other hand, struggled with the physical impact of being glued to a mobile screen for hours along with reduced outdoor activity.
In a way, the pandemic offered our learning system a silver lining among the clouds- an opportunity to transform. While discussions about a complete pivot to smart learning and digital delivery have been afloat since ages, the crisis showed us whether this execution was actually possible or not. The flipped classroom, that we imagined as a dynamic and empowering space, was being delivered in real-time. There was also a real opportunity to take advantage of digital methods to increase the scale and impact of learning to include those who may otherwise not have access to physical classrooms. The idea was to test the waters for the creation and delivery of engaging content to transform the process of learning.
What happened instead was that Zoom classes became an equivalent of a physical class, just like an e-paper is the digital version of a newspaper minus any value addition of its own. Governments too went into an overdrive with MOOC apps, lectures through Doordarshan, WhatsApp and what not. Evidently, teaching activities took place and no doubt helped students save an academic year from going to waste.
But given that such a pivot to digital delivery was being executed at a massive scale, this opportunity could also have been used to radically alter the way educational content is created- visually appealing and focused on user engagement like in gamified content. It is crucial to remember that content mass distribution is like water over a pan – it overflows with no impact.
Reaching more with less
From being buzzwords to being a version of reality, the concepts of smart classrooms and flipped learning were intended to bridge gaps in learning by creating interactive and engaging content. What the pandemic has brought to our notice is that while our commitment to smart learning for all is unwavered, the model of execution has some flaws. The vision of education for one and all cannot be achieved through piecemeal measures but requires a holistic overhaul of status quo.
Thus, a misplaced celebration of investments for profit could distract us from the truth that we missed the pandemic opportunity to bring about a fundamental change in educating our children by reaching more with less, instead of reaching few who can pay, with more and more.
(The writer is Founder Chairman Sampark Foundation and Former CEO HCL Technologies)