February 25, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
India’s education technology, or edtech, sector has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. When it exploded onto the scene in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, it was hailed as a sunrise sector, the shining star of India’s red-hot startup economy. But the boat has been rocked with the return of offline classes and a torrent of complaints about service quality, misleading marketing, lack of transparency and outright cheating. To top it all, the sector has been laying off staff by the thousands. What’s wrong with Indian edtech and how can it be set right?
How often have you heard of or seen on social media stories about young people signing up for online courses offered by edtech firms, then realising they’ve been had. Missing teachers, substandard course quality and hazy deliverables are only some of the complaints. Many also say they have been deprived of refunds despite being promised them or the service contract clearly stating that they are entitled to them.
It’s no surprise, then, that there is a strong demand for greater regulation of the edtech industry. So far, there has been little by way of regulation with edtech companies free to offer any courses they like, do what they wish with consumer data and market their products as they see fit.
The government responded by issuing an advisory asking citizens to be cautious before signing up for online courses. Under pressure, edtech companies came together to form a self-regulatory body, the India EdTech Consortium, or IEC. Government officials ticked off edtech firms and the IEC for not conforming to marketing guidelines and threatened stringent regulations if unfair trade practices continued.
The matter got the attention of lawmakers too. Karti Chidambaram, an MP, was vocal about the problems with edtech. He pointed out that children’s future was at stake and, therefore, government monitoring of the industry was needed. He wondered how self-regulation can be allowed when it seemed that profit rather than quality education was the objective. Chidambaram pointed out that traditional schools and colleges have to seek various permissions before beginning operations. But edtech firms simply have to flip a switch to get started.
The IEC, on its part, identified sales practices, content quality and teacher effectiveness as the key problems.
However, there may be a larger issue in play.
A Human Rights Watch report last year claimed that several edtech apps put children’s privacy at risk by capturing their data. There were concerns that the apps were tracking student behaviour as well as their parents’ financial and personal data.
Angry users haven’t held back, voicing their complaints on social media. Many parents have claimed that edtech salespersons know their personal details and reveal them while making their pitch.
From media reports, edtech was the third most funded sector in 2021 in India after e-commerce and fintech. While it seemed like a golden run then, the businesses came under pressure as brick-and-mortar schools and other institutions reopened. As the global economy slows due to various factors, such as inflation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, funding has only gotten tougher. This has necessitated cost-cutting measures in the form of layoffs. And these have been effected in the thousands across the country.
What’s more, the financials of edtech services have raised an alarm. It started off as a funding avalanche and skyrocketing valuations and the potential for return on investment was exciting. From being providers of supplemental education, edtech companies began to be seen as primary education platforms. But that proved to be an overestimation. The news of funding has been replaced by a sea of balance sheets awash in red ink. What we’re seeing now is mounting disillusionment and eroding customer interest. This had an effect on business and soon edtech firms went on a sacking spree.
This sequence of events shows, of course, the limitations of online education and it draws attention also to the state of formal education in India. It underscores the futility of funding frenzies chasing the flavour of the month. How many billions of dollars have the edtech firms burnt through? And how many livelihoods has it wiped out through layoffs?
Meanwhile, the industry’s litany of problems continues. Many employees have complained of hard-charging and abusive bosses, a toxic work culture that saps many mentally, and insane hours.
The edtech industry may claim that, in the balance, it has delivered more benefits than harm by changing the learning ecosystem. And validation has come in the form of many reputed institutions, such as the IITs, signing up for collaborations.
But, so long as profit remains the primary motive, very few would be convinced. Sure, a course correction may be under way but the first priority for edtech companies must be to rebuild trust.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.