Reimagining School Education in a Post-Pandemic World
In the near future, it will be back to school in India. The entire country is anxious as educators, parents, students and the government try to strike a delicate balance between public health and getting students to start effectively learning again. There are significant risks at work today. There are no ‘best practices’ or even ‘strong hypotheses’ around whether to bring the students back into the classrooms fully, have complete online education or some kind of a hybrid. This article highlights the challenges and the opportunities that our private schooling and test-prep system in India has to face and capture, respectively.
Challenges Faced by Institutions, Teachers, Students and Parents
Our school educational system along with the associated support system, has faced dramatic challenges. Teachers have had ‘back-breaking’ increase in their workload and significant teaching challenges, students have faced poor learning outcomes and debilitating ‘digital stress’, and institutions are grappling with financial stress, delivery and infrastructural issues, and an uncertain business future.
One of the biggest challenges faced by institutions is around revenues and costs. A Benori survey suggests that only 50% fees have been collected over the last six months. Low-cost private schools in UP have witnessed a dip in their fee collection by 60%–70%. Around 500 affordable private schools have shut down in Hyderabad owing to shortage of funds. At the same time, expectations around education efficacy from parents and students have only gone up since they have experienced online learning or ‘LearningX’. This in turn has led the schools to feel the heat to invest in IT infrastructure and online pedagogy, which is only making the situation worse.
Further, expectations of revenue streams from next year’s admissions have gone down. Getting new students admitted for the next year has become increasingly difficult. With educational institutions mostly shut and uncertainty hanging over the next academic year, institutes are seeing a sharp decline in admissions (up to 50%). Experts believe that the situation will normalise only in the academic year 2022.
The second big challenge faced by institutions is related to technology and online teaching requirements. Going from near to completely offline to online almost overnight has been hugely problematic. Public schools and low-fee private schools have faced a severe impact owing to heavy reliance on brick and mortar means of delivering lessons. Poor IT infrastructure and connectivity issues have taken a toll.
The biggest challenge faced by teachers has been around salaries and job insecurity. For many teachers, their full or even partial salaries have not been paid. Further, parents have been able to observe teachers in action and have filed complaints about the quality of teaching and the teachers themselves. This has led to an extra ‘performance pressure’. Many institutions have used these complaints to let go many of them — leading to further job insecurity in one of the most secured professions of all times. Unlike the past, the institutions are now struggling to motivate and engage with teachers.
Second are the technological challenges that teachers are facing. Teachers, on an average, are quite ill-equipped and not trained for online teaching. Online teaching has also increased their workload dramatically since they have had to provide personalised attention to students, hold online classes, record lectures, administer tests and clear doubts over WhatsApp and Zoom. The challenge gets further heightened due to the inadequate IT infrastructure that is available with the teachers and the schools.
Students and Parents
Already extremely challenging in our school system for students, the quality of education and efficacy of learning outcomes has further deteriorated. Students have different learning styles and online does not lend itself well to all these styles. Many are struggling with how to ask questions, thus impacting the learning outcomes even more. Lack of sports and extra-curricular activities is adding onto the stress. As per a Benori survey with students, only 50% of students were happy continuing with online classes once the situation comes back to normal.
At home, for many, the atmosphere is not conducive for studying. Students might tend to get distracted by gaming consoles or social media. Lower levels of commitment have been widely reported. On the other side, teachers are under a lot of pressure to finish the syllabus, leading to them giving students loads of homework (much more than usual). This has further reduced the learning efficacy.
As far as connectivity is concerned, only 24% of the students had access to the internet when the government ordered a nationwide lockdown. Lack of enough devices at home, poor bandwidth and power outages have compounded the problems. Most students are not able to attend all the classes as they do not have access to laptops, cellphones or data at their homes, thereby significantly limiting the online classes model. Because of a single device in the household some of them need to share it with their parents or siblings who are also attending online classes.
Financial troubles for many parents have forced them to postpone or even eliminate fees payment. For their children, parents are worried with a sudden increase in screen times which has exposed their children to health risks including but not limited to frequent headaches, eye-related problems and back pain. Mental stress for both students and parents is substantial and broadly prevalent.
Opportunities and Some Strategic Questions to Be Answered
As described above, we are prevailing in a crisis (at least for the short to medium term). However, this is ‘too good’ a crisis to waste, and hence we should get inspired by it and reimagine education in the country. Whether it is the mid-premium school segment, the affordable private school segment or the test-prep segment, there are large business opportunities that have emerged.
The Mid-to-premium School Segment
There is a significant opportunity for consolidation in this segment. For both multi-school chains or individual schools, there are several good schools where the non-founding generation (i.e. the founder’s children) is not willing to pick up the reins. Many of these schools are on the lookout for transition, but at the same time want to maintain the legacy of the founder. Further, many non-educationalists (e.g. real-estate owners) are finding it difficult to compete with other good schools and have limited understanding of not only the market dynamics but also the huge technological disruptions that are taking place at the school level. They are endeavouring to bring in experts and more professional and larger education companies to help them out.
School financial/management models (the ‘OYO’ model for schools) represent a second big opportunity. Large education businesses can provide technology, domain expertise, leadership and content/pedagogical value-adds to thousands of mediocre schools that are struggling to fulfil their responsibilities towards their students and teachers.
The Affordable Private School Segment
In addition to the ‘consolidation’ and the ‘OYO’ opportunity highlighted above for mid-premium schools, there are a few other opportunities in the affordable private school segment such as affordable learning products and digital school management systems
Two examples of companies who are doing wonderful work in the affordable learning products space are Imax and Uolo. Imax is a digital education provider, which provides personalised educational services to students and schools. The company was founded in 2009 and is headquartered in Bengaluru. It offers curriculum services such as designing textbooks for students, creating lesson plans for teachers, crafting question papers for exams and digital learning content. It provides worksheets to students based on their strengths and weaknesses. The company had 3,00,000 students in 2017–2018 and aims to increase its reach to 1 million students in 2020. During 2017–18, the company conducted 6 million exams and provided schools with 1.2 million worksheets.
Uolo is a school-parent communication application provider, which was founded in 2014. It helps teachers, students and parents in establishing real-time communication and assist parents in tracking the progress of their child. The application lets teachers share information regarding homework, events, circulars, results and attendance directly by using photos, videos and messages. The company offers an annual subscription model. With headquarters in Bengaluru, it has a reach to 3,000+ schools and 2 million+ parents in 200+ cities.
‘Digital Schools’ or platforms that enable digitalisation of schools represent another large opportunity. Companies like ‘Lead School’ offers technology-based school transformation solutions for online, in-school and hybrid. It provides schools with books, workbooks, smart classes, teacher training and manuals. The company services more than 800 schools, 10,000 teachers and 3,00,000 students. It helps school owners in designing curriculum and provides real-time tracking of school operations. Principals can use its cloud-based solution to monitor teachers’ and students’ progress. It empowers teachers by delivering training workshops and by providing them digital classroom resources.
The Test-prep Market
The size of the private instructing industry is expected to reach USD 130 billion by 2022. The test preparation market, which trains students for competitive exams, is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 16% by the same year. From home tutoring to teaching large batches of students, to setting up institutes, taking to online learning and finally activating the hybrid model, coaching has evolved with changing times and has undergone a sea change, especially over the last few years. The momentum towards digital transformation has only got further accelerated in these times.
Some of the tools being adopted include audio-visual explanation of concepts, solved examples, interactive simulations, practice questions and adaptive assessments. With many pre-tests, doubt-clarifying sessions, concept-strengthening classes and pre-recorded lectures, the virtual classroom offers greater practice too. Moreover, tools such as V-SAT based tele-education allows distance learning through video teleconferencing sans internet usage.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning technologies and data analytics are expected to take online coaching right up to the “Cloud”! Online math learning portal Toppr’s daily active base increased by 47% per month between February and April. Similarly, Coursera and Khan Academy saw an 28% and 33% per month increase in their daily active users’ numbers over the last few months, respectively.
Traditional offline players are trying to adopt online platforms. The key question for omni-channel players is around competing with fierce and highly funded online players. The trick will be in transitioning from a predominantly offline model to a scaled online model. The critical issue, and possibly the only solution, is to leverage the physical centers network to create a more powerful and defensible omni-channel business.
In conclusion, it can be said that ‘the darkest hour is before the dawn’. Hopefully, the darkest hour for our schools, teachers, students and education administrators is coming to an end. With this, the dawn of a ‘New India’ is imminent. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leapfrog and create an inclusive, universal and best-in-class (literally) schooling system on the planet. Moreover, we should get creative and work towards achieving our vision of providing livelihoods and good jobs to hundreds of millions of young Indians over the next two decades.
The article was first published by Ashish Gupta on October 8, 2020.