Virtual labs, data analytics and attractive business models are drawing entrepreneurs and learners to invest in digital classrooms
Sonali Acharjee | 30 Aug, 2018
KING COBRAS, OLIVES and snowscapes flash on my phone screen. In under seven minutes, I learn about the vegetation, wildlife and climate of 11 different types of geographical regions in Asia. I switch to Chemistry. After a few slides on the Thomson’s Model or the plum pudding model, explaining why an atom is electrically neutral, I realise I’ve spent over an hour on Extramarks, a learning app. I’d read about word formations, the endrocrine system, app development and The Great Uprising of 1857. I’d taken an exam on electric circuits, read a case study on why egg production at a poultry farm had drastically reduced in the winter months, and done a virtual lab experiment to study the reaction of sodium with water. And I wasn’t bored. On the contrary, I was happy to spend another hour browsing through the various topics offered under my free 10-day trial.
“Visual representation of information is attractive and interesting,” says Gunjan Agrawal, co-founder of Logic Roots, a hands-on learning games provider. And he’s correct. Reading plain text about a gold leaf or a pith ball electroscope detecting electrical charges isn’t nearly as thrilling as watching a video on how each actually works. Similarly, walking into an animated lab and creating a bottle organ to understand the characteristics of sound puts mere information into a real- life context, making it both relevant and intriguing for the learner.
“Motivation to learn has been one of the greatest challenges of traditional classroom teaching. Large amounts of plain text no longer attract kids today, who are growing up in an interactive and inter- connected world,” adds Agrawal. While setting up Logic Roots in 2012 with his partner Kunal Gandhi, the duo realised that three basic components need to be integrated to maintain a learner’s enthusiasm and curiosity. “Education needs to have a social angle, a story and variety,” explains Agrawal. Keeping this in mind, Logic Roots became one of the first few providers of game-based learning tools, using board and card games to teach math. This process of gamification or the application of game mechanics of fun, collaboration, competition and rewards in non-game situations has since become one of the focal points of several digital education platforms. Interactive experiments, quizzes and virtual application of concepts are all relevant to teaching because they keep facts and figures from becoming a barrage of monotonous black and white text.
In their 2018 paper How Will Digital Media Impact Education? the authors, Muhammad Ammad-ud-din, Tomi Mikkonen, Noora Pinjamaa, Lehto Satu, Pauliina Ståhlberg and Emanuele Ventura write, ‘The idea of learning through games is associated with the fact that students learn in different ways and that they learn many things outside the schools, often via access to digital media and online community or social media.’ They further note the benefits of an interactive style of learning, ‘One tremendous benefit of games is that they promote cognitive skills. One such skill is called ‘situated cognition’ or ‘learning by doing’ (meaning teaching a concept in the environment where students can practically demonstrate that knowledge). Research has shown that the use of situated cognition for education purposes promotes learning, students learn faster, retain knowledge longer and transfer that knowledge to the real world.’
“Customisation, feedback and interaction have made digital education more real, almost like a classroom itself” Pavan Chauhan, CEO, Meritnation.com
But back in 2007, when Atul Kulshrestha launched his edu-tech company, Extramarks, the idea of gamification or indeed learning using any kind of technology was still viewed with heavy scepticism in India. “There was very little interest because most parents and teachers were not comfortable with technology. They could not see the potential of digital learning because most of such software in its early stages was mostly presentations and video lessons,” says Kulshrestha. Such technology- based learning has its roots in the early 1960s when a team of psychologists at Stanford University began experimenting with it. For several decades afterwards, digital education was used mostly for distance learning or to provide websites related to courses and topics conducted in schools and universities. The idea that it could ever become a substitute to tuition or a supplement to classroom teaching was unheard of. “It was a mind block—how can a computer teach? But with an increase in the penetration of internet and smartphones and as personal disposable incomes grew, comfort and interest in technology for learning also improved,” says Kulshrestha.
Over time, using a combination of data analytics to map student performance and progress, animation and 3D technology to provide convincing graphics as well as syncing the online curriculums completely with different boards (including several state boards), digital education softwares had an image makeover, not just globally but in India as well. Today, Extramarks has a presence in 8,000 schools in India and has expanded to include institutes in South Africa, Middle East and Indonesia. In the last six months, the Extramarks learning app was downloaded 2.5 million times. And it isn’t the only e-learning provider gaining traction and visibility. Edu-tech company Byju’s raised around $50 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2016. While the math e-learning start-up Cuemath made $15 million in funding from CapitalG and Sequoia India in 2017. The entire digital education industry in India is predicted to make big bucks in the near future. According to Online Education in India: 2021, a study by KPMG in India and Google in 2017, the industry is expected to grow to $1.96 billion over the next five years. The paid user base is expected to increase from 1.6 million users in 2016 to 9.6 million in 2021. The primary and secondary education category, currently at $73 million is likely to grow tenfold to $773 million by 2021. And it will have the largest addressable audience with a student base of 260 million.
“A new generation of tech-friendly adults becoming parents and the use of data analytics worked in favour of e-learning ” Atul Kulshrestha, chairman, Extramarks
“Aside from a new generation of tech- friendly adults becoming parents, what has also worked in favour of e-learning is the use of data analytics,” explains Kulshrestha. Extramarks uses a three- step approach towards education which includes learning, practicing and testing. For each of these, data monitoring has paid off heavily. “For example, when it comes to testing, our software tracks different users to deduce which questions are easy and which are more challenging. It then automatically provides questions that match a learner’s progress level. The same applies to monitoring and mapping a student’s progress through various lessons. The software connects the student, parent and teacher and gives constant feedback to each stakeholder. This ensures timely intervention if a child is stuck or falling behind on a particular lesson,” adds Kulshrestha. Most edu-tech providers such as PiRuby, Geneo, Byju’s, Toppr, Unacademy now place emphasis on such customised and tracked lessons. “E-learning softwares must adapt to the learner’s pace, needs and progress and not vice versa,” says Kulshrestha.
IT ISN’T JUST modifications in the software that is making digital education an attractive proposition. Pricing too plays a key role. According to Online Education in India: 2021, there are 71 million students in India who opt for tuition classes after school and there is a high probability that a majority of them will switch to digital classes in the next few years simply because the latter is cheaper and more convenient to access. For example, an e-learning course for a secondary school student would be roughly Rs 25,000 for an academic year; the same would cost Rs 48,000 for an offline tuition class. For an extra Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 the student can also opt to receive hardware (a tablet or sometimes even a laptop) along with access to the software. “My children would attend tuition with a neighbour till Class V. But it was strenuous for them to return home, get ready and then go back to ‘school’ again. They didn’t enjoy it and as a result they didn’t learn,” says Niharika Deb, 44, whose two children, aged 11 and 13, attend Delhi Public School. “Both of them were doing poorly in English literature and physics. When they started to read Shakespeare on their ipad, saw a short enactment of Julius Caesar speaking to Brutus, their interest piqued. Now they look forward to returning home and doing lessons online,” adds Deb, who herself has enrolled for a few such courses. “Learning is a lifelong and continuous process when you go digital. Visual-based education will attract anyone regardless of age,” she says.
In addition to keeping the price relatively low, most software and apps follow the freemium model, allowing users to access a limited amount of free content on one hand and unlimited premium content which must be paid for on the other. For many, the sheer diversity of the paid content, which ranges from augmented reality classrooms, artificial intelligence- based programme selectors to live lectures by professors from different universities, makes the price worth it.
“Children today relate to digital stimuli. Almost from the time they are young children, they are exposed to technology and devices. Read, remember and repeat isn’t a solution that will make learning impactful for them. They need interactivity, clear understanding, an ease of learning and a wealth of resources,” says Pavan Chauhan, chairman of Meritnation. com, an online tuition website which was one of the first in India to set up live classes with professors from IITs, Punjab University, Delhi University and Banaras Hindu University to name a few. “When digital education started, many focused on data being given out in a manner that captures the attention of young learners—through animations, graphics, short clips. The industry then diversified to prepare learners for tests and entrance exams. Now there is so much more to it—customisation, interaction, feedback, progress reports, doubt clearing—digital education has become much more real, almost like a classroom in itself,” says Chauhan. With virtual reality devices that will allow students to learn history by meeting characters from the past, chatbots and intelligent assistants who will answer doubts with a voice command and social peer-to-peer learning where teaching will happen in interest-based online communities, the online classroom is only set to become more life-like and reliable than ever before.