Importance Of Phygital Presence And The Vernacular In Education

"It would be a gross oversimplification to consider Edtech as on homogeneous monolith. It is actually an overarching term used for many different kinds of technology solutions serving different needs of the education ecosystem."

Mr Archin Bhattacharya, Founder & CEO, Notebook

Archin Bhattacharya, Founder and CEO, Notebook, India's first after-school digital learning portal that combines video and text content in English and regional languages, speaks with BW Education about the barriers in Edtech, the transformation it took over the pandemic and bridging the digital divide.

What are some major barriers you see with Edtech? 

It would be a gross oversimplification to consider Edtech as on homogeneous monolith. It is actually an overarching term used for many different kinds of technology solutions serving different needs of the education ecosystem. Some barriers are general barriers to the adoption of technology – like availability of devices, stable networks and electricity. However, we have witnessed a lot of these factors addressed in the last few years and the rate is only accelerating over time. Only two major barriers remain:

  1. Trust: The education of the child is extremely important to parents and a large section of the Indian society is yet to trust Edutech products to be anything beyond frivolous aids. The pandemic has, in many ways, helped build this trust as parents have witnessed online education for over a year now. 
  2. Products are being driven more by supply-side considerations than demand-side ones: The over-emphasis on STEM subjects, bundling of hardware and increasing costs, predominantly English speaking products – all speak of products designed more from a resource availability standpoint, rather than truly catering to the student’s learning needs.

How can we overcome this?

External factors like devices, networks and electricity are already getting solved at a heartening rate. Having witnessed their children sit for online classes, more and more parents are now also placing their faith in digital learning tools. On the product side, however, there is still scope for a lot of improvement. We, as Edtech entrepreneurs need to take a more Design Thinking approach, where the student is kept at the centre of all product decisions. 

Another key issue is for product organizations to become more honest and transparent. We come across a lot of parents who feel duped by large brands that promised a lot during an aggressive sales pitch, only for the features and benefits to be withdrawn later. This creates a negative customer sentiment towards the entire category. As long as we realize that at the end of the day we are all working for the child to learn better, and accept that we are all in a constant state of improving our solutions, I believe each of these barriers can be breached.

How can edtech in rural India provide employment opportunities?

Rural India needs edtech that is relevant to them. Hence, youth from these areas can become localisation experts. Their innate understanding of the psychology of these areas and the native knowledge of the vernacular is going to be of prime importance in catering to students in rural areas. Besides this, once geography is being targeted, there will be massive requirements of continuous on-ground support – be it in terms of consumer education, product demo, addressing usage related queries, or aiding in making payments. All of these offer immediate-term employment opportunities. In the long term, however, we will see the real dividends, in terms of a massive young & confident workforce, who will contribute actively towards building a New India.

What is some unique step that you have taken to bridge the digital divide?

The digital divide, unlike common perception, is not one major rift between just two sets of people. It is more like the lines you observe in a spectrum. Barring the top 5 per cent of the population, there are sets of people who have internet-capable devices but have never accessed digital solutions, sets of people who can afford devices and connections but have never considered it a priority, and then there are sets where affordability of even a basic Rs. 3000 smartphone is out of reach. Notebook adopts three different strategies to solve each of these issues:

  • Use of technology: Notebook’s product is built on cloud-based bitrate-adaptive technology for video playouts. So if the user does not have fast internet, and is on a lower bandwidth connection, the system automatically plays a lower bitrate version that saves on bandwidth consumption and offers a buffering-free experience.
  • Going ‘Phygital’: Despite being a digital product, Notebook has entered into collaborations with large retail distribution networks, especially ones with a rural footprint. The retailers act as influencers who educate the parents about the advantages of digital education and often demonstrate product usage – thereby creating the first generation of edtech adopters in the locality. 
  • Collaborating to serve BOP users: Notebook has also partnered with an organisation that manages over 2000 rural schools, enabling access to Notebook content within the classrooms. In addition to these, the modular nature of content also makes it well suited to terrestrial TV broadcast and community radio services. The content is designed in such a way that it can use any available technology for dissemination to reach the learner – which, of course, is the ultimate objective.

How important is the inclusion of regional languages in the education system?

The premium we have attached to 'English Medium' education has become a kind of elitism and a barrier for a huge majority of young students to being treated on the merit of their conceptual knowledge. I see this as the most significant shift in the way we look at our education system. Having said that, introducing vernacular is easier said than done. Unlike France, Germany or China, where one language enjoys an overwhelming majority, we have multiple regional languages. It is going to be a difficult task – but an extremely necessary one. This is why, right since inception, Notebook had vernacular language inclusion as a core objective. Today when we see massive adoption of our vernacular-aided bilingual videos for Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, it only shows the latent demand for vernacular language in our education system.

How can you build scale?

With 280 million children in schools, and less than 2 per cent of that number ever having used a structured edtech product, India presents the largest edtech opportunity. Scaling is therefore a function of accessibility and relevance. Notebook’s content, tailored to the school curriculum, delivered to any connected device and in vernacular languages provides the most appropriate solution for Tier II and Tier III markets in India. Notebook also offers flexible pricing models that fit the budget of all Indian families that have a household income of more than 30,000 per month – which provides a huge catchment of potential users. The key factor, then, is visibility and trust. This is being built in three different ways:

  • Phygital presence – Notebook is in the process of setting up a massive ground presence that is key to customer education and building awareness in ex-urban markets
  • Partnerships – Notebook has been chosen as the preferred edtech partner by large B2C brands like BSNL, PayTM, RailYatri and AsiaNet News. The massive penetration that these brands enjoy in Notebook’s target markets helps build awareness for Notebook. 
  • Engagement with Schools – Notebook’s greatest asset has been the engagement it enjoys with schools. Despite being a B2C product, Notebook has always aligned itself with schools as a partner. We have conducted inter-school online debates last year that became the largest of its kind, with 64 schools participating across 7 countries. We have also been hosting a series of Webinars called ‘Together for Education.’ We have created a community of over 75,000 educators across the globe and we conducted the 100th episode on 19th May this year. In addition to these, we regularly engage with schools for content vetting, teachers’ training, etc. 

What have been your key achievements and learnings on this journey so far?

Notebook is still in its infancy. Having launched on 26th January 2019, it is still too early to celebrate any kind of results as achievements. However, having said that, we have received extremely optimistic recognition from all quarters. At the ET-Now Global Marketing Conclave, Notebook was awarded as the Best Education App and Best Educational Website. The India Achievers’ Award for Excellence in education was conferred upon us as well. We were chosen by the likes of BSNL, PayTM, RailYatri and AsiaNet News as edu-content partners. Most importantly, more than 2.1 million learners chose us to help them with their studies, with more than 60 per cent of that number coming from outside the 4 metro cities.

In terms of learning, there have been too many to enumerate. We have, as a team, learning new things at an hourly rate. However, the key takeaway for me has been that every product will eventually be known for the culture it represents. This goes beyond design, office environment or even the mission or vision of the organization. At Notebook, we operate on a culture of inclusive respect. We respect the student’s individual learning needs and need for time. We respect the parent’s importance of education and value for money. We respect the teacher’s unquestionable primary role in a child’s education. We respect the team’s need to be part of a significant cause. In all that we do, in all that we say, in all that we are – we embody this respect – and that has been the greatest impetus to the Notebook brand.

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