Digital technology has proved to be a disruptive force for the education sector, changing the old paradigms of teaching and helping create the climate for more personalised forms of learning. Priya Singh writes about the success of e-learning apps and portals in India.

 

It is part of our era’s conventional wisdom that the right kind of teacher can do wonders for a child’s education. But a teacher is merely a cog in the wheel of our educational cycle, which gains momentum through multiple factors ranging from what we are being taught, and the way we are being taught. These days, the emphasis is more on the “method” of teaching than on the expertise of teachers. According to this new model of education, driven for the most part by digital technology, the teacher is sidelined, as content—as learning—takes centre stage.

In 2015, the Kerala-based engineer Byju Raveendran, who had once been a teacher at a coaching centre himself, launched his eponymous e-learning project, Byju’s: The Learning App, as a response to what he saw as the outdated model of classroom education. The Byju’s smartphone app—and portal—offers study material for classes 4-12, as well for competitive exams like JEE, NEET, CAT, IAS, GRE and GMAT. It is a student-centric platform, which aims to make learning more interactive, more engaging and more enjoyable.

“Students should take up the initiative of learning on their own, while parents should take up supporting roles,” says Divya Gokulnath, co-founder, Byju’s: The Learning App. “The focus [in conventional schooling] so far has been on spoon-feeding and rote memorisation, rather than encouraging children to learn on their own. In India, learning is driven by the fear of exams rather than the love of learning. If they learn right from the start, they will become lifelong learners instead of  learning just for exams.”

The success of Byju’s in India has been unparalleled. According to Gokulnath, the platform now has over 22 million registered users and 1.4 million paid subscribers. She says, “We are seeing an addition of 1.5 million registered users every month. In terms of revenue, Byju’s has seen more than 100% growth and we are targeting Rs 1,400 crore in revenue next year.”

That’s not all. In 2016, Byju’s also became the first Asian company to get investment from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic organisation founded by Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. To establish such market presence in a matter of three years is no mean achievement. (And you require cash plus cachet to get Shahrukh Khan as your company’s brand ambassador.) But in a country like India, where most educators are still stuck in old ways of thinking, a paradigm shift can be seen as a threat to the old order. So it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Byju’s.

“The challenge has always been around changing the perception about how children should learn,” Gokulnath tells Guardian 20. The current challenges can easily be addressed by using technology. In classroom learning, access to quality teachers, personalisation of learning has always been an issue as it is a very exam-focused approach. Integrating technology in education not only increases engagement but also simplifies the way students learn. It makes the whole learning process way more interesting, with visuals and real-life examples.”

Besides, technology makes teachers adapt to the changing learning environment. “Teachers now have access to varied tools and technology to make learning more interesting and impactful for students. This adds a whole new dimension in the way teaching and learning takes place. Integrating technology in teaching not only increases engagement but also simplifies the way students learn,” adds Gokulnath.

(R-L) Divya Gokulnath, co-founder, Byju’s; Krishna Kumar, CEO, Simplilearn; Raghav Gupta, Director, India, Coursera; Amit Goyal, South Asia Head, edX.

Apps like Byju’s can be viewed as supplementary add-ons to our daily diet of classroom learning. They help us along the path that leads to school certificates and college degrees. E-learning, however, becomes more than a supplement when we look at apps and portals that are offering their own degree courses.

One such example is Simplilearn, an online certification and training platform with offices in Bangalore. They offer online courses in cyber security, cloud computing, project management, digital marketing and data science among other subjects. “Online learning is accessible and affordable to the deepest pockets of the country at a click,” says Krishna Kumar, CEO, Simplilearn. “Our market is growing because of the credibility that players like us have earned from users, industry, academia and the government. In today’s age of digital transformation, there is nothing more significant than the need for continuous learning. All our courses are outcome-centric and our mission has been to help individuals to ‘up-skill’ for better jobs, promotions, and salary increases.”

Short-term degree courses aside, e-learning is being embraced by those people as well who are looking to get enrolled in more comprehensive educational programmes offered internationally. Coursera, a California-based online learning platform that offers certified courses from the world’s best universities—including Yale, Princeton and Stanford—has been adding rapidly to its subscriber base in India.

“India has a lot to gain from online learning,” says Raghav Gupta, Director, India and APAC, Coursera.  “About one million people enter the workforce in India every month with no guarantee that they will have the competencies to succeed in jobs of the future. Even as technology renders many skills obsolete, online learning will be the transformative force that empowers millions to acquire new skills. We see this trend reflected in our growth in India. We now have 3.3 million Indian learners on the platform, while adding 60,000 new users every month. Our platform is giving employers and professionals the much-needed opportunity to access the best and most relevant content the world has to offer and learn the skills needed to compete in the new economy.”

Another player in the field of e-learning is edX, a “massive open online course” (MOOC) platform, founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. It offers courses on subjects like artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, business and management, leadership, soft skills, and so on. According to Amit Goyal, Head, India and South East Asia, edX, “Lack of employer recognition and academic credits are the sonic barriers of online learning in India and the world. Companies like edX are now offering university credits for their online programmes. For example, edX credit-backed MicroMasters programs can be taken completely online, and every programme leads to an on-campus master’s level credential at an accelerated and cost-efficient manner. Students can save approximately 20-50% of their on-campus degree time and money after completing edX MicroMasters programme.”

For edX, India is a potential market set to expand with each passing year. Goyal says, “India forms the second largest learner base for edX, after the USA. E-learning is going to bridge the digital divide in India. Educational institutes who may not afford high-quality teachers can increase their teaching standards by referring to online courses taught by world-class professors and adopt flip-learning pedagogy. E-learning is not going to replace classroom learning and real teachers. They’re both going to work hand-in-hand to deliver a superior learning experience for students.”

E-learning may never take the place of classroom learning, but it has made our educators rethink the old models and methods of teaching. Technology has already proved to be a disruptive force, in a good way, for this sector. In the coming years, this trend is sure to leave an overwhelming impact on our schools and colleges, and, more importantly, on our collective imagination. In other words, alongside a changing reality, perceptions will change.

Divya Gokulnath of Byju’s shares with us what the future of education might look like. “Technology has played a key role in disrupting this sector and will continue to shape the teacher-student relationship by offering better accessibility, distribution and formats of delivery,” she says. “Gamification makes learning fun, engaging and effective at the same time. It has a huge role to play in the education space. Children are primarily visual learners and explaining concepts with visual representations makes learning exciting and easier. Case in point, new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) will be playing a major role in making learning more of an immersive experience and extremely engaging. Another factor that is going to make a huge difference in this sector is personalised learning. The combined power of artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics will enable personalisation of learning.”

 

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