Bridging Digital Divide For Students With Edtech & Traditional Schooling Synergy

In order to challenge the current digital divide, to ensure that quality education products are available to the masses and not just reserved for the creamy layer of the society - new distribution strategies need to be devised so that edtechs can become affordable

The Indian digital divide is a direct consequence of several factors. Technology access has had a direct relationship with household income. Higher income groups enjoy stronger access to technology and supportive infrastructure. With about 50 per cent of the Indian population earning less than Rs 54,000 a year, it is no surprise that affordability challenges linked to technology acquisition and recurring running costs are widespread.

There is a further nuance within this income dependent access. Not all members of a household, which has smartphone access for instance, have continuous access to the interface at all times. The case study of the ‘father who takes the smartphone away for a larger part of the day’ is ever so common. Therefore, technology access, even if present at the household level, does not necessarily imply continuous availability.

Secondly, the regional context has played an important role. The quality of data connections varies widely with geography. On one hand, tier 1 city patrons are being pitched lightning fast internet speeds; while on the other, the smaller towns and the rural sectors struggle for even the basics. The digital divide is therefore a reality.

Rise of edtechs, despite the digital divide

The pandemic has accelerated the uptake and penetration of smartphones. Learners and parents, due to the pandemic, were forced to acquire technology and access education online. According to ASER reports, the availability of smartphones to learners in rural India - the sector that faces the highest access challenge - has increased dramatically from 36.5 per cent in 2018 to 61.8 per cent in 2020 and finally to 67.6 per cent in 2021.

The schooling system, in order to survive, was forced to come online and engage learners through digital products. Schools went beyond the physical premises and the schooling hours, through edTltechs, to minimise the impact on learning. The edtech space thus received the much needed impetus. Now that the school ecosystem has realised that learning through digital interfaces is feasible, it is expected to continue to exploit this new found capability.

New education policy initiatives is another consideration that might force schools to enhance their operations via online presence. The NEP 2020 emphasises on 21st century skills, higher order learning and skills based education. It explicitly mentions the importance of imparting learning through technology and tech integration at the school level. Further, new assessment mechanisms (like Key Stage Assessment - wherein learners as young as in grades 3, 5 and 8 will appear for 'board' exams) will become competing grounds for schools. Performances in these exams will reflect the school quality in an open and transparent manner.

These factors support the argument that schools and learners will continue to demand and access digital education products; more so as smartphone access continues to grow in the country. In an open education market, in order to compete, schools will continue to access technology as an instrument to enhance quality of education and learning outcomes.

The edtech rollercoaster: the way ahead

To say that edtech in India has been through a rollercoaster would be an understatement. During the pandemic, Byju’s first acquired WhiteHat Jr for a whopping $300 million. But then recently, the same WhiteHat Jr downscaled various offerings and let off a substantial chunk of its human resource. We similarly saw deflations in the cases of Lido, Udaay and Vedantu. And then again, recently, when the pandemic was seemingly ending, PhysicsWallah came out of nowhere and became a unicorn without venture capital.

What’s working for some and causing disasters elsewhere?

The answer is probably the way edtechs have been distributed. Organisations that faced the steepest challenge were the ones that tried the B2C game; they had to deal with excruciatingly high customer acquisition costs (CAC) and hence were priced beyond the reach of the masses. While 98 per cent of the learners pay less than Rs 30,000 annually in school fees, 70 per cent of edtech products in the market are priced around the Rs 20,000 mark.

In order to challenge the current digital divide, to ensure that quality education products are available to the masses and not just reserved for the creamy layer of the society - new distribution strategies need to be devised so that edtechs can become affordable.

The schooling system can act as the needed distribution channel where edtechs can meet the learners. Edtechs that are able to attract and penetrate schools can potentially achieve success at scale - viewing the schooling system as a distribution channel - without spending obscene amounts of money on customer acquisition.

There is thus a need for a platform, a marketplace, that can marry the two worlds: the edtech offerings on one hand, the schooling system on the other.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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digital divide edtech Traditional Schooling

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