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Year in review: Edtech attracted dollars and controversy in 2020

edtech growth in India
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At first glance, things couldn't have been better for the up-and-coming edtech industry in India. It received total investments of over $2.2 billion. Student count was estimated at more than 250 million up to K12 levels. Paid and free subscriptions reportedly crossed 90 million. The big got bigger through acquisitions while others continued to dream big. 

However, amidst all this noise, there were also a couple of big challenges that these edtech companies faced during the year. And, none bigger than the vast majority of India's population that remained outside internet coverage. There was also the case of an edtech company facing severe social media flak over attempts to teach coding to kids between 6-14 years of age. 

When crisis of continuity became the opportunity

None of these was making news when 2020 dawned nice and bright, albeit with a shadow of a new virus lurking in distant Wuhan. However, barely 12 weeks later, the country was shut down and education faced its biggest crisis of continuity. Which is where the knights in shining armour from the world of edtech dashed in to help and in the process raked in the moolah. 

The 250 million school students had to be shifted online. Teachers had to become digital savvy. And students had to be examined and promoted into their next virtual class. All of this happened at breakneck speed and in the process edtech companies just took over education. From private tuitions to vocational classes, from hobbies to skill upgradation courses - all went digital. 

Even Google provided us with indicators of the surge. Between April and December of 2020, edtech searches grew more than 60% while individual companies like Byju's and Toppr saw a bigger surge. Parents ran around seeking solutions to ensure academic continuity for kids, who were otherwise part of a bigger challenge they perceived while working from home. 

And then came the deluge

Of course, the madness wasn't confined to a demand push. On the supply side too, edtech firms used the surge to seek and acquire funds, making them one of India's top-three funded sectors. They have raised more than $2.2 billion in capital with KPMG estimating more than 3500 edtech startups vying with each other for a finger in the pie. 

Not without reason though as the federal ministry from human resources predicted that India's edtech expenditure would cross $10 trillion by 2030. While the early birds used the lockdown to catch a few more worms in terms of securing extra funds or acquiring synergistic start-ups, the others went about attempting to expand their reach, both at a B2C and B2B levels. 

A deeper and wider acceptance

On the whole, the one change that came over the past 12 months was the reduced skepticism around virtual learning. Those that were offering courses to K12 kids, pivoted to becoming B2B startups providing learning platforms, AR/VR support and other tools to make courseware look interesting for self-learning within moderated classrooms. 

Another noticeable trend over the past 12 months related to the growth that edtech startups had reported from outside of India's big cities. Byju's claimed that more than 60% were non-metro users, while a research report from Omidyar Network put this number for the sector at more than 70% with users largely belonging to tier-2 cities. These include Kochi, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Patna and Ahmedabad among others. 

This surge in demand from smaller cities has also raised a few hackles. Educators believe that absence of robust internet connectivity in towns and villages could result in a widening of the digital divide. Many have petitioned the federal and state administrations to make technology and hardware available to rural India so that children can be helped to bridge the gap. 

Edtech companies are holding on to the belief that India's shift towards 5G would drive the next bout of growth for them. Of course, what isn't yet clear is how soon would the country shift over to the next-gen technology in mobile connectivity, given the fact that India is yet to auction 5G spectrum though smartphones capable of tackling it are already a dime-a-dozen. 

Some consolidation as well

Amidst all this brouhaha, the edtech business also witnessed consolidation at the top level with mergers and acquisitions topping the best till date. While the likes of Byju's and Unacademy got their hands on younger startups, others sought out small but purposeful innovations such as Spayee that looked to democratise edtech itself. 

While Unacademy acquired five businesses including Kreatyx, PrepLadder, Mastree, Coursavy and CodeChef, Byju's acquired both WhiteHat Jr. and LabInApp - the first for a whopping $300 million and the second for an undisclosed amount. Others like Vedantu acquired a stake in the doubt-resolution app Instasolv with an eye on tier-3 and tier-4 towns. 

A peak into the future

Overall, the year saw digitization drive education, right through school to college
and thereafter to skilling and corporate training. Suddenly coding became the go-to strategy for parents as the federal government's national education policy defined it as one of the skills for the future. 

As the curtains come down on 2020, the questions that remain in our minds include: 

(a) When academic institutions open, how are they going to treat digital learning?

(b) How will digital learning percolate to the lowest levels in the absence of internet?

(c) What would be the blended learning models that would govern this space?

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Raj Narayan
Raj Narayan

A media veteran who turned a gadget lover fairly recently. An early adopter of Apple products, Raj has an insatiable curiosity for facts and figures which he puts to use in research. He engages in active sport and retreats to his farm during his spare time.