Rohit Dhar, President, Products and Technology, upGrad

The education industry has been witnessing a rapid uptake of technologies and ICT solutions, be it for teacher training or dissemination of lessons to students. The Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated the adoption of digital solutions, making remote learning and online classes the new normal. Rohit Dhar, President, Products and Technology, upGrad, shares his views on the key technology trends shaping the sector, the opportunities and challenges brought forth by Covid-19, and the way forward…

How have the ICT needs of the education sector changed over time? What are some of the key technology trends shaping the sector?

ICT has evolved tremendously in the past few decades, reforming the education sector by increasing learner engagement, elevating training of teachers and enabling the acquisition of essential basic skills. Educators and learners are both making the most of ICT for teaching, learning and assessment. Further, with the rapid rise in digital literacy in India, more and more users are using audio-video technology to learn and teach. A gradual transformation has been witnessed from teacher-centred learning to a learner-centred milieu.

Further, a boom in the edtech sector has propelled massive changes in ICT in education. With video calling infrastructure and advanced teaching methods, ICT-acquired classrooms have been transformed with positive academic outcomes. Some of the key technology trends noted are mobile learning, virtual video-classroom learning, ubiquitous learning (anytime, anywhere approach), ML and AI-based personalised learning, online mentorship and immersive learning platforms designed to engage students and spur the desired outcomes.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges presented by Covid-19 for edtech players and traditional educational institutions?

We can break down the education sector into three buckets:

  • Bucket 1 includes a set of people or organisations that do not have any inclination towards technology and never want to get into technology. They come from the traditional teaching model with their physical brick-and-mortar kind of operation.
  • Bucket 2 includes people and organisations that follow the brick-and-mortar operation, but are also inclined towards technology and would want to latch on to it when an opportunity presents itself.
  • Bucket 3 includes people and organisations that are wholly focused on technology and probably have a minuscule or almost no brick-and-mortar presence.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the entire sector has witnessed a tremendous change. Individuals and organisations from Bucket 2 have transitioned to Bucket 3. Meanwhile, Bucket 1 has been struggling to get into Bucket 2 by accepting that there is no going back. Returning to the traditional physical brick- and- mortar model of education will take much time to return. Having realised the same, either they have to shut shop or leverage technology to stay relevant.

Bucket 1’s challenge is transitioning from a comfortable space to entrenching in Bucket 2 by learning new skills. As they are not willing to fully give in to technology, they find the situation challenging. As they transition to Bucket 2, they will soon realise that the online edtech space is giving them more opportunities in terms of bringing in more students, exposing students to new teaching methods, experts being roped in for sessions, using the power of the internet to educate students with updated learning content and more.

Many teachers, such as tuition teachers, coaching teachers and coaches will need to traverse from Bucket 1 to Buckets 2 and 3 to sustain their livelihoods and educate students during the pandemic. Once they get comfortable going online, they become experts. There is much accessibility in the market with respect to amazing experts exploring their teaching prowess in the online sphere. There is a huge opportunity for teachers and coaches in the online space as they can individually educate students and acquire the “expert” title.

Covid-19 has presented an interesting scenario for educators to explore the many ways of teaching through technological advancements. Edtech players are also making the most of the situation by raking in an exemplary response in terms of volume and acceptance. We, as edtech players, are realising that content will not have a play in the future. It will be services such as one-on-one coaching and small group coaching that will be the key growth factors for any edtech player.

What are your views on the use of technologies such as AR/VR, IoT and AI/ML in the education sector? How has been their uptake in India so far?

AR/VR uptake is very low at the moment as you have to own the technology such as the physical unit for eyes. Purchasing expensive technology is not something people are keen on in education. India is a money-poor time-rich country. People do not want to buy multiple gadgets. We want to have a phone or one device that will have everything. And if that phone cannot give us AR/VR, it will be tough. So the next level of AR/VR for us is available on the flat screen. The implementation of AR/VR on a flat screen takes a lot of effort for any player in the tech market and the value addition is minuscule in terms of revenue and business.

So the return on investment for AR/VR in the edtech sector is minuscule, unless we are talking about courses that need 3D simulation such as civil architecture and human anatomy. ML and AI help in making decisions for a specific learner in specific areas and provide a personalised experience for our learners, resulting in faster learning and decision-making.

Going forward, how do you see the education space transforming in India? What will be the key drivers?

The education space in India will evolve and grow just like the telecom industry. In telecom, we hopped from Edge to 3G without realising 2G was ever introduced. And now as we enjoy 4G services, LTE came in because of Jio and we are already moving towards 5G. Hence, access to data is no longer a challenge as it is widespread and affordable for the common people, thanks to our telecom industry.

The way forward for education in the country is also speculated to transform in a similar pattern, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, which, unfortunately, will reside among us a little longer. Pre-Covid, online probably was less than 1 per cent of primary education. However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, students, learners, parents and experts have had no choice but to go completely online. This sudden shift from offline to online made all players in the education sector see the real positives of online education such as the comfort of studying from home, teaching from home, sitting in their rooms and comfortably sharing their thoughts, which will continue to become a part of their daily schedule.

There are predictions of education in India becoming a hybrid model, whereby there will be a bit of brick and mortar for sure and there will also be online learning. I would say, initially the online/in-person split would be 70-30 and slowly it will go up to 60-40 and then 50-50 and may be 40-60. But I do not think it will go beyond 40-60, whereby 40 per cent will continue to be online and 60 per cent will be brick and mortar. The accessibility of resources and the variety of people, content and services online are way beyond our imagination. This will encourage people to go online in the future.