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Mass layoffs, offline classes: How edtech is coping with schools, colleges reopening

With real-world campuses back in action, edtech platforms like BYJU’S and Unacademy have been forced to make changes. But experts agree: it isn’t game over yet for e-learning.

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New Delhi: When Covid lockdowns turned schools, colleges, and coaching centres into lifeless shells, a new vitality burst forth in the education technology, or edtech, sector. But, with real-world campuses and classes in full swing again, the industry is now facing difficult choices, with some companies seeing mass layoffs and a few attempting to diversify to a hybrid model.

Over the last two years, screens became the ground zero of everything from school tutoring to test prep, and edtech ventures boomed.

The industry was valued at $750 million in 2020 and predicted to reach $4 billion by 2025. Last year, online learning platform BYJU’S became India’s highest valued start-up with a $16.5 billion valuation in June, Unacademy raised $440 million in August, and upGrad, Eruditus, Vedantu joined the unicorn club in September.

As of this summer, though, things don’t look quite so hot.

Unacademy reportedly laid off about 1,000 employees to cut costs over the past few months, even as it opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Delhi in March. BYJU’S, too, launched offline coaching classes for children in February, but when it asked employees of White Hat Jr (which it acquired in 2020) to report to office, it saw 800 resignations over the last couple of months.

Lido struggled to pay salaries and let go of 150 workers in February — just months after raising $10 million — and, earlier this month, Vedantu fired 200 people.

With relieved parents now happily piling their kids into school buses or off to summer camp, and teens now able to attend in-person prep courses, is the edtech bubble about to burst? ThePrint spoke to industry experts as well as parents to capture the rather erratic pulse of the online learning sector.


Also Read: Why bankers, engineers, researchers & other pros are turning teachers on edtech platforms


Schooling to stay ‘real’, but scope for online test prep, upskilling

While basic teaching and learning are expected to majorly shift offline, there is still plenty of scope online for test preparation, coding, and other specialised skills, experts say.

Edtech giant BYJU’S move to introduce “hybrid” classes for students from classes 4 to 10 signals a “clear directional shift”, according to Nikhil Mahajan, executive director of Career Launcher, an online test prep platform and the edtech arm of CL Educate.

“Coming from probably the largest player, [BYJU’S addition of offline classes] is a clear statement of where the industry will settle. There could be areas like skill upgradation where things will remain 80 per cent online and rest offline. Other areas like teaching and learning, especially for schoolchildren, will largely move offline,” Mahajan said. “In my opinion, it will be a healthy hybrid model.”

Experts also said that platforms that have a different value proposition have a greater chance of long-term survival, and will not be endangered by the return of the offline classroom.

Sriram Subramanian, co-founder and CEO of Clever Harvey, a career accelerator platform that offers online MBA programmes for teenagers, explained this by citing the example of his own platform.

“Career exploration, which has emerged as a category with companies like Clever Harvey, does not compete for time with schooling and therefore is not impacted by the return to physical classrooms,” he said.

The platform offers programmes for high school students in marketing, technology, entrepreneurship, data analytics, UX design, digital marketing and finance. According to its website, more than 10,000 students have enrolled so far.

Online courses in specialised areas of learning, including web development and technologies, digital marketing, and cybersecurity, are likely to find takers, experts believe. Soft-skills training and English-language classes for adults too, have scope for online growth.

Shobit Banga, co-founder and chief product officer of Josh Skills, a skill enhancement platform, said he was optimistic. “Sectors that will continue to be online will include test prep, K-12 and university skill development,” he added.

This applies to students like Nitisha Sharma, a Class 12 student from Delhi. She goes to school but does her prep for engineering entrance exams online because it saves time and she finds the videos useful.

Working adults who want to upskill also appreciate the flexibility and convenience of remote learning.

Prathmesh Dhankar, who is pursuing a course in digital marketing from a Mumbai-based institute, said he has no plans to shift to offline classes. “I am currently running a small business and need to learn additional skills for my business to grow. There is nothing better than online education for me,” he said.

Varun Chopra, co-founder and CEO of Eduvanz, a student loan provider that also associates with various edtech platforms, believes that this segment — busy students and professionals wanting to grow their skills and “portfolios” — will continue to prefer online courses.

Parents wary of screen time, but open to ‘hybrid’ learning

Some parents that ThePrint spoke to said that they are looking at online learning differently now. While it is not considered essential for education any longer, it is still useful in some instances.

Once such parent is Samriddhi Manocha, a Gurgaon resident who had enrolled her 12-year-old daughter in two online teaching platforms last year. Recently, she cancelled one subscription.

Like many parents, Manocha believes that her child will benefit more from real-world interactions. “First of all, the schools have reopened and my daughter does not need to study online anymore. Second, I think the last two years have been very tough for children in terms of dealing with the pressure of online studies, I just want her to stay off screen now,” she said.

However, this does not mean Manocha is bidding goodbye to online classes. “I have kept her enrolled for one online platform, which helps her develop extra skills,” she added.

Some parents, though, have had enough of screen time and prefer offline classes even for extracurricular learning. “I have started sending my eight-year-old son to a summer camp in the neighbourhood. I just want him to spend time with other children,” Akanksha Gulati, a Jaipur-based parent, said.

The demand for physical classes from parents is what actually led BYJU’S to start offline classes earlies this year. “The decision was made after thorough research as many parents were found to be keen on offline learning,” a BYJU’S spokesperson had said back then.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


Also Read: Expensive crash courses, students dropping out of school – how CUET is driving change in higher education


 

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