Byju’s, one of the top providers of education technology in India, have recently raised $50 million from Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) alongwith four other venture capital partners – Sequoia, Sofina, Lightspeed, and Times Internet – and the money is supposed to be used to carry out its plans of expansion. Byju Raveendran, the Chief Executive and founder of the organization, has said that the funds would be used to expand to international markets and also procure funding from companies around the world. CZI is a philanthropic body founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his better-half. This is the first time that they have put their money in an Asian company.
The story of Byju’s so far
Byju’s has been founded a year back and in this period its application, named K-12 app, has been downloaded 5.5 million times. The app also enjoys 250,000 yearly subscriptions across India, according to Raveendran. The app provides learning courses for students of fourth to twelfth standard as well as competitive examinations such as Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), Common Admission Test (CAT), Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), and Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).
How it is changing learning?
Raveendran says that K-12 is changing the very way students are learning in this era when mobile devices are all the rage. It has an approach that can be regarded as a combination of teaching, data science, and pedagogical methodology, with the end aim being to provide a personalized way of learning. School students using K-12 also have the benefit of assessments and feedbacks.
Why is CZI helping them?
According to Vivian Wu of CZI, families in India put in a lot of hard work to make sure that their children are properly educated and thus are in a position to enjoy a better future. Wu says that Byju’s provides a chance to students to love what they are learning and thus tap their true potential and this is the reason why they chose to back the startup. It is a policy of CZI to help learning models around the world that are innovative and perhaps this has also played a role in helping the organization get that funding. Wu is also expected to join the board of directors at Byju’s as well.
Has it proven to be successful?
Statistics state that the app sees an engagement rate of 40 minutes in a day and 90% of the people who use it have been renewing their subscriptions. Thus, it can be said that the app has proven to be fairly successful. It also shows that they have indeed been able in making their users better students than before. Raveendran has also stated that the partnership with CZI is a way to progress to the next stage of its growth and their goals of bringing about equality and improvement in human potential are aligned with those of CZI.
How are exam preparation apps challenging the traditional norms?
It would be a mistake to assume that Byju’s is the only member of its fraternity – there are several other similar apps that are changing – or at least attempting to do so – the very face of education in India. They have at least thrown some serious challenge to coaching classes. A lot of students have also been using them since they have found it to be an effective way to learn compared to what they had been doing previously. However, the biggest problem that these apps may be facing is their rate of course completion, which is on the lower side. While it is true that in most parts of the country – especially ones where the rate of technology penetration and awareness is low – the coaching classes have a vice-like grip on preparation for examinations.
Breaking the model
Experts however feel that the days of this dominance are numbered. They normally work by way of the group study model where there is a traditional structure of boards, classroom, students, and teachers. The new groups feel that this model is not effective enough for most students and this is the reason why they wish to break the same by providing a personalized mode of learning.
Toppr is one such app. Its Product Manager at Online Learning, Joe Joshua Kochitty, echoes the above sentiment saying that coaching classes are ineffective for most students and there is a real chance of falling behind in case a student practices differently to others. He says that all students have their individual methods of learning that may not adhere to the set pattern followed in the coaching classes. However, apps like Toppr are also facing problems in keeping students engaged.
Prepathon is an online preparation app that has been created by Pagalguy, a startup in the business of education. It is attempting to tackle the problem of engagement through bots as pointed out by Allwin Agnel, its CEO. Its course completion rates vary between 3% (as in the case of Coursera) and 10%, which is fairly low. The bots are used to encourage students to complete the programmes on offer and inform coaches regarding people who have not logged on. Once they get the information, coaches can message the students. In Prepathon, students can message the coaches as well and get answers to their questions. This sort of provides a personalized approach that may not be there in the major web-based open courses.
Using analytics in education
Agnel points out that most students never come out with their doubts and questions just like what they would do in a classroom and this is where, according to him, the bots play such an important role by assisting coaches to get across to students that need the encouragement. They decide the daily agenda for a student, and ask students if they wish to revise a topic taught long ago. Kochitty echoes Agnel in saying that around 95% of the students are passive learners. He points out that compared to active students (15 questions a day) passive students have just two questions in a month.
What are the users saying?
Vikas Gupta is one of the many users who have been benefited by using these apps. The Mumbai-based engineer is 25 years old and had used Prepathon to get ready for CAT. He appreciates the coach feature of the said app, likening it to WhatsApp, and praising its instant response system. He said that the app helped him prepare on the move – an integral aspect of these apps – since all the material was on his phone. However, Prepathon was not the only facility that he used.
He had joined a coaching class named IMS that provided him the exam environment just like what he would face during CAT – a three-hour examination in a classroom. It was for this simulation that he joined the coaching class. However, he does acknowledge that Prepathon helped him learn well.
His opinion is however different to Faizan Bhombal – a 25 year old working in a Mumbai-based company that deals in shipping equipment. He is presently getting ready for Staff Selection Commission (SSC) and is using Prepathon since he has found the coaching classes to be quite expensive. He normally commutes to Mumbai by train and during those two hours he used Prepathon to study. He says that he prefers these apps because of his time crunch. He spends most of his time traveling and this is why online learning is suitable for him.
Kochitty states that students who like to learn differently normally are the ones that use these apps the most. He also says that the feedbacks from students asking them to fix their mistakes show that for the students Toppr is the main way of studying.
Learning on the way
Toppr has been improving its product in a major way by working on the metrics and feedback. Kochitty says that they use internal metrics to check the usage statistics of various features. In cases where features are used less they are removed by Toppr. They also use machine learning methods to analyse how comfortable students are with various topics and gauge the level of progress. Their approach is also different to coaching classes where students are asked to solve the toughest questions – they normally work on a progressive method.
The organization also has around 25 experts who are good enough to deal with high-level questions and 100 tutors for each subject. These teachers also have proper experience in teaching students. They work daily but the sheer amount of questions is now becoming an issue. This is the reason why the company is looking at automation to increase the pace of its workflow. It tries to make sure that its tutors are the most active in the busiest hours – from 9 pm to 1:30 am. The toughest questions are manually sent across to the tutors.
Prashant Chadha, a coach employed by Prepathon, says that the students seek advice alongwith answers for their doubts. They have specific questions with regards to aspects of preparation – approach, options for higher education, and strategy. They also wish to know which exam would be suitable for them in the future. He also points out that the conversations in these online classrooms are similar to the actual classrooms as well – there are plenty of questions.
Everything starts out as small and goes on to become bigger and better, if it’s meant to. As of the moment, these apps may be working with a limited market because of the low rate of technology penetration in India but one feels that as this rate of technology usage increases so will the presence of these service providers. They are definitely here to stay.
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