Achin Bhattacharyya, Chartered Accountant and ex-Director, Deloitte, is the CEO and Founder, Notebook. He had worked in India and abroad in various senior capacities in GE, PwC, and KPMG before joining Deloitte. After taking a sabbatical for three months he traversed the length and breadth of the country and spoke to students, parents, and teachers to understand the challenges they face and the need for creating an engaging and immersive learning experience that can help in shaping the young minds during their formative years. With the inclusion of all significant boards and outreach to urban and rural classes of the country at affordable price points, Notebook is an effort to provide access to effortless and efficient learning for school students.
Since March 2020, the schooling system in India has undergone a sea change. In many ways, it has leapfrogged a substantial period in its adoption of various digital learning tools and methods. As a result, terms like “blended learning” and “flipped classroom” which were buzzwords in education conferences – have become an everyday reality for millions of students and teachers. It has been a testament to the incredible resilience of our esteemed educators who left no stone unturned in ensuring that even though schools are closed, schooling goes on uninterrupted. As we enter 2022, we look back and see an education system – particularly school education – that has metamorphosed into a technology-enabled ecosystem adopting innovative practices to ensure that the development of our future citizens is not compromised.
In a lot of ways, our school system has become similar to the more technology-infused systems that have been prevalent in some other countries even before the pandemic. Of the ways it continues to be different, though, the most noticeable one is the presence of a parallel system – the private tuition industry. Very few other places, globally, have such a well-established presence of a system that essentially teaches children the same thing as their school. What started as additional help or remedial learning has reached proportions where whole towns have become centres of such tutorial classes. Students as young as 6 years are taken to these tuition classes by their parents which promise some competitive advantage to the student, that the schools are missing out on. One of the things that have become more apparent than ever, during the pandemic period, is how incredulous this promise is.
During the pandemic, parents got to sit in the virtual classrooms. In my interactions with hundreds of parents, I see a much greater appreciation of how teachers in schools are far beyond the knowledge emitters that they were being perceived as. The school is, undoubtedly, a place where the student learns from the knowledge and expertise of the teacher. However, it would be erroneous to think that this is all that the school does.
A system that engages the students in the most crucial stages of development for the development of their mental, emotional, kinesthetic and social faculties through immersion into exposure and experiences cannot be reduced to a mere vehicle of transmission.
It is the lack of these qualities that makes tuitions ill-conceived replicas of the school system. The extraordinary focus on marks deviates from the real outcome of education – the development of a well-rounded individual. I firmly believe that every time a parent chooses to substitute an hour of school engagement with an hour of tuition classes – he or she does the child a disservice in terms of holistic development.
Looking at ed-tech platforms, it is important to first understand that it far from represents a monolithic or homogenous system. ‘Ed-tech’ encompasses a wide variety of applied technologies that serve to enhance the teaching-learning process. ERPs are used in schools as platforms for students to seek counselling – it all comes under the wide umbrella of ed-tech. If I were to focus on K-12 Content-driven ed-tech platforms, which comes closest to the “new tuitions” comparison, even there – one sees glaring differences.
First, the difference is in the approach to schools or teachers. Until a few years back, this difference was a little lesser. Ed-tech was still thought of in terms of the business paradigm of B2C and B2B offerings. B2C ed-tech products, by and large, ignored the presence of the school while B2B offerings focused exclusively on tech-enabled classrooms. The pandemic, however, has blurred the line separating the two. Most ed-tech brands now traverse the line as the students learning experience moves between home and school. Hence, while the tuitions have always purported to substitute the teacher, ed-tech, in its current shape and form, has emerged as a teaching aid for the teacher and a learning aid for the student. Some products have even gone out of their way during this period by conducting interaction sessions with teachers, training them and driving their professional development, despite being B2C brands.
Secondly, the difference is in the content that is delivered. If tuitions thrive by stripping a lesson of everything that is not directly converted into marks in an exam, ed-tech is the exact opposite – using technology to create engaging content. Today, immersive videos, video editing technology, AI and Machine Learning – all have contributed towards enriching the student’s learning process. During the pandemic months, every ed-tech brand has conducted various events involving students that proactively promoted extra-curricular activities. As we move into a post-pandemic period, ed-tech platforms will continue to try and push the envelope in terms of wider engagement of the school ecosystem – leveraging the didactic potential of each experience.
Thirdly, between March 2020 and January 2022, there has been a tectonic shift in the way parents perceive the whole process of schooling. The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is the renewed importance of family values, community ties, mental wellbeing and responsible behaviour. Parents I have interacted with are pausing to ask themselves what kind of future they want their children to have, and the answer is often not remaining limited to a list of few ‘elite’ courses or institutions. As more and more parents realise the value of holistic development over scoring marks, they will actively seek out products that allow for this. Hence, market forces will also increasingly determine the trajectory for ed-tech products that would keep moving farther away from the ‘tuition through videos’ philosophy.
Fourthly, the post-pandemic world is more health-conscious than ever before. Every parent is now concerned about the physical well-being of their children. I expect to see parks, fields and playgrounds filled to capacity once humanity is assured of their safety. It is a well-known fact that tuitions thrive on the pre-school morning hours and post-school evening hours. As more and more students adopt more active lifestyles, they would find the ‘anytime, anywhere’ promise of ed-tech more suited to their needs. Ed-tech platforms have been proactively trying to become more adaptive to every students’ individual learning needs, and that will make them far better choices than tuitions.
In summary, it is important that as we, as a nation, rebuild after the unprecedented scale of losses from the pandemic, we remain cognisant of the learnings of these last few months. I sincerely hope that parents collectively realise the futility of a few marks in the face of compromised lives and lifestyles. I hope that this renewed focus on mental and emotional wellbeing doesn’t fade away. Above all, I hope and pray that we all work together to build a world on wholesome values where narrow-focus exam-oriented rote-learning does not find a place. I dream of a world where education is imparted as a part of a child’s every experience, and I trust ed-tech to make that dream come true.