Navakoti Ram, Managing Director and Chairperson, Upswing Learning

Gone are the days when learning was confined to well defined physical spaces. Today, as we are still trying to protect ourselves from COVID, adoption of online classes has allowed the students to continue their education without hindrance. “Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic caused havoc across the country, forcing schools and higher education institutions to close down, technology has come to the rescue, to bridge the gap in the teaching and learning process. It accentuated to an unprecedented rise in digital users both in the B2B and B2C ed-tech space,” says Navakoti Ram, Managing Director and Chairperson, Upswing Learning. In an interaction with Higher Education Digest, Navakoti Ram talks about how learning management can work as a teacher’s aide, current and upcoming digital learning trends, the inception of Upswing Learning and the gap it wishes to fulfil, and many more. 

 

Online education can change the educational landscape of India. What is the status of digital learning in India?

The education industry as a whole in India is traditionally identified as brick and mortar centres imparting education through teachers and students coming together from a community or neighbourhood setup. With the technology and digital narrative being profound and disruptive across most of the economic sectors, education has also joined the bandwagon, albeit still nascent in its adoption, with many strides yet to be taken in this regard. According to the KPMG report on the status of Online Education in India, the online education market size would increase from 0.25 billion in 2016 to close to a 2 billion market by 2021 and an average CAGR of 52% year on year. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic caused havoc across the country since March, forcing schools and higher education institutions to close down, technology has come to the rescue, to bridge the gap in the teaching and learning process. Hence, accentuated to an unprecedented rise in digital users both in the B2B and B2C ed-tech space. Schools and colleges were quick to switch to digital classrooms, and young professionals and school-going children enrolled to learn new skills and undergo certifications such as coding, Machine learning and AI. However, despite the rise in users of digital tools, the adoption has been more of an ’emergency remote’ learning approach rather than an effective teaching-learning system, which in turn leads to a growing disparity between urban elite schools and rural school. Lack of IT infrastructure and Internet connectivity being the key contributors.

The nationwide lockdown and school closures have brought online learning providers into the spotlight. How is Upswing Learning responding to it?

With the massive enrolment and upsurge in digital tools and technologies ever since Covid-19 took a stranglehold on India’s growth story, Redseer consulting have predicted the EdTech sector to grow into a $5bn market by 2025. As a company, we at Upswing Learning pride ourselves at being at the forefront of technology innovation and the digital revolution in Indian education. Our R&D team are continually identifying and developing the next EdTech tool to make the teaching-learning process more immersive and effective. As a B2B company and also as an educationist, we give the quality of technology in supporting teachers and education institutions the utmost importance during innovation and approach. Within ten days from the onset of lockdown 1.0, we launched our proprietary digital classroom, proctored examination, automated admissions and our LMX technologies (a significant upgrade from the LMS). Our engagements with education institutions have increased by five times as compared with pre-COVID levels. With the recently announced National Education Policy 2020, it is clear that technology will have to play a vital role, in ensuring that the vision which the policy envisages, turns into a reality.

In India, how seriously are students going to be set back by not having formal instruction? What are the efforts of Upswing Learning to control the damage?

During the days of lockdown 1.0, with complete restriction to movement, productivity and output, the main cog of the teaching-learning process, which is human interaction, vanished. The only way to bridge this gap was to embrace technology tools to facilitate the teaching-learning process. The rapid adoption of video conferencing technologies served as a stop-gap arrangement for a steady mode of communication between teachers and their students, albeit not wholesome as compared to a physical teaching approach. The role of teachers is not just to teach a particular subject but also to guide, mentor and build a student’s persona. The role of a teacher and an institution can and never should be undermined and underestimated. As technology players and solution providers, our role is to ably support them with resources and tools to ensure more effective, innovative and enriching teaching-learning experiences.

Upswing Learning strongly believes that our technology must provide added value to an education environment where teachers use our platforms to conduct, manage and innovate their teaching approaches. Our proprietary LMX and live classroom tools are teacher-centric, allowing teachers to have complete control of their classrooms. They would be able to create their own or use our lesson plans, manage student enrolment and attendance, gain insight on gaps in student absorption and device remedial approaches. A completely transparent, insightful and action-oriented digital environment that fulfils needs of each stakeholder is our offering in ed-tech.

The digital divide between students in India has become apparent as schools have increasingly turned to online instruction. What can school systems do to address that gap? How is Upswing Learning helping students with online education in Tier II and III cities?

As mentioned earlier, with the current digital revolution observed in institutions, there is an apparent digital divide and inequity between urban and rural educational institutions. Despite the massive penetration of the internet and mobile phone usage in India, we still observe that bandwidths and disruptions are profound in rural areas where electricity supply itself is irregular. For a useful digital mode of conducting and consuming digital content, there is a high dependency on IT infrastructure and hardware. The gap could be considerably reduced through government spending and CSR funding towards rural internet connectivity and necessary IT infrastructure. Once the smart city initiatives are implemented, we will also have well connected, digital towns coming up. Another critical problem that lies primarily in rural areas is the lack of quality teaching content with teachers not being able to impart education as effectively as their urban counterparts.

As technology players, we believe that technology-aided tools and resources have considerable capabilities in reducing this gap. From an Upswing perspective, more than 50% of our current engagements come from tier 2, tier 3 and rural towns. The reason being that all our platforms are compatible across devices, be it a laptop, desktop or any smartphone. Bandwidth requirements for our digital classroom technology are low, and hence classes can continue to function even in low bandwidth areas. Our systems allow for a seamless synchronous and asynchronous learning environment with students being able to access content and videos curated by their teachers even during times of connectivity disruption. To ensure that teachers are updated, upskilled and made aware of best practices and approaches in the industry, all our subscribers are provided with upskilling modules to ensure their teachers are in the best position to impart knowledge to students.

What are the common misconceptions Indian students have about online learning programs? What kinds of technologies would you recommend school systems adopt?

There are quite a few misconceptions which are specific to the various groups of users. I shall focus broadly on two issues; firstly that ed-tech is a stop-gap arrangement with teachers fearing that it would replace them and secondly the issue that content provided by ed-tech is not valid and lacks the quality as compared to traditional courses and pedagogy.

Before COVID, teachers were resistant to using technology primarily, with the inhibition and fear of technology replacing their roles. We at Upswing too felt this reluctance during our initial interactions with teachers. Teachers were then made aware that in reality, technology is an enabler, allowing them to perform their tasks more efficiently, effectively and help them focus on what they love doing, which is to teach. Upswing’s unique value proposition to educators is the fact that all our platforms, such as our LMX and Upswing classroom, are teacher-centric. The teachers have controls to manage their classroom and tools to identify the skills and levels of each student to then device individual approaches for each student. Over time we were able to successfully bring teachers on board by collaborating and curating content and pedagogy unique to each institution.

With regards to the assumption that content and courses provided by ed-tech players are not quality-driven and comparable to their conventional counterparts, this notion is widely misplaced. With regards to Upswing’s content for schools and higher education, the content is curated by educators and teachers across India specific to syllabi and grades. What makes the content even more insightful is the fact this it supports differentiated and personalised learning. With alliances through subject matter and domain experts, ed-tech players are in an ideal position to curate and deliver content that is relevant, dynamic and effective to changes in the real world.

What are some of the most innovative technologies in EdTech right now? What are the critical trends of e-learning to follow in 2020-21?

Technology in the broader sense is equipped with vast artillery for any sector to take advantage of, be it artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, data science and gamification. Ed-tech offerings have developed using these technologies to make teaching and learning more meaningful, innovative, enriching and accountable.

In the B2B segment where Upswing operates, our AI-enabled tools allow conducting proctored exams without the need for human intervention in the process. Suppose any candidate attempts to conduct malpractices such as using web browsers, screen sharing software, taking assistance of others during the exam as well as identifying devices within the vicinity of the exam taker, red flags get highlighted. Machine and deep learning insights through our LMX platform help teachers to identify strengths and weaknesses of students and pave an individualised learning path for them. In-turn enuring better outcomes to the teaching-learning process and help improve structure and pedagogy. With the emphasis on project-based learning as envisaged by the NEP 2020, we see immersive technology simulations using AR and VR. Simulated labs provide students with hands-on experience to understand key concepts, resulting in a deeper and better understanding of subject matter.

What are the opportunities Upswing Learning see in the Indian education market? Also, what are the challenges for you to become a significant player here?

With the education market as a whole being a $100bn ocean, ed-tech is considerably smaller in size in its current state. However, as we have observed since the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic, ed-tech has undergone a hockey stick curve with an unprecedented rise in the number of organisations, retail users and educators alike. The traditionally slow sales process in a B2B sector, Upswing has also witnessed an increased demand and awareness for robust and immersive solutions. Teachers have understood that the learning curve to use digital platforms is relatively simple, effective and enjoyable. Demand-side dynamics have changed for Upswing as we have generated many leads from across tier1, tier 2 and tier 3 cities in India with many more in the pipeline. The closely-knit and well-connected community within the education sector have been beneficial for Upswing as pleasant experiences with our current clients have gone a long way in converting new ones. Having said this, for a smaller sized company such as ours, the awareness and recall factor is something that we are constantly putting efforts into through our media and PR channels alongside our strong network in the academic community. It is pleasing to witness clients getting excited once we show them what our technology has to offer. Getting their attention to lead to the demo stage is where we are maximising our efforts.

What would be the future of EdTech market from now? What is some advice that you have for startups that are emerging in the EdTech space?

As a market, ed-tech in India is still nascent as compared to its western counterparts; the opportunity for growth is tremendous. We will continue to witness disruption in solutions, offerings and business models whilst also observing consolidations between technology players to access new markets, technologies and unlock synergies. From a curriculum and pedagogy standpoint, we will see an active role being played by technology through personalised learning paths, simulations and gamification. The industry will continue to attract attention and investment due to its disruptive nature and growth capabilities. We will start to witness a seamless collaboration between technology and educators across processes and delivery models, leading to a more robust flip learning and blended learning approach.

To fellow members of the community and startup peers, one valuable piece of advice which has also worked for me is to be passionate about what you are looking out to do. As startups, it is imperative to be agile and flexible internally to adapt to market changes. More often than not, cash flows take time to materialise with intended ROI’s do not achieve as expected.  However, this should not deter or demotivate individuals. One must have the passion and belief to persevere, listen to key stakeholders, revive and re-emerge. Easier said than done, the importance of passion is often undermined. It is the founder’s passion and belief which is what sets the vision, the path and the framework the organisation must take to be successful.

What is your advice to the online learning aspirants?

To our fellow students, professionals and educators, the ones who consume the content; it is a great time being on the consumer side. With the amount of innovation and accessibility to quality, user-specific content, upskilling, un-learning and re-learning has become easy and effective. With the ed-tech market looking upwards into the future, I would love to see young professionals entering the segment, playing a crucial part in the next digital revolution to come up with innovations, technologies and companies to rival global powerhouses.

 

About Navakoti Ram

Navakoti Ram, the Chairperson and the Managing Director for Upswing Learning spearheads the strategic goals of the company and is instrumental in constructing the company’s future roadmap.

Navakoti has a proven track record of working across industries including hospitality, professional services, and consulting before focusing on his ventures in the education and ed-tech spaces.

A third-generation entrepreneur hailing from the Ramaiah family who owns and operates the Ramaiah institutions in Bangalore, Navakoti is a young leader with the ability to build, guide, and direct Upswing Learning. Apart from the current venture, he also occupies management positions at the Ramaiah Group and Navkis group of institutions.

Navakoti holds a bachelor’s degree in Management Studies from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, and a Master’s degree in International Business from the Grenoble Graduate School of Business, London.

Navakoti Ram resides in Bangalore on M.S Ramaiah road in a joint family setup with more than 45 of his family members! Besides devoting his time to Upswing and his other educational ventures, Navakoti loves spending time with his family.

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