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I've been thinking about EdTech (the use of technology in the delivery of education) and education in general. Questions like - when will schools and colleges reopen and in what state, will education ever be the same, how will competitive exams like IIT, JEE, CA etc happen - have been on my mind. In these changed circumstances, the current system is starting to look outdated.
With most full-time students studying from home through apps like BYJUS, Toppr, and Unacademy, and professionals using the likes of Udemy, Coursera, EdX, and Masterclass, to learn new skills (and show them off on LinkedIn :P) - it's clear that online learning is here to stay.
So, this article delves into online education, against the backdrop of traditional education. I hope you'll enjoy it. :)
The current state of education
The delivery model of education has been the same for many-many years. One teacher in a classroom full of students, and many classrooms in a school.
This model has its advantages like - it induces punctuality and discipline, children learn to pay attention and to be respectful, being with other kids helps build social skills and teaches them how to be a part of a community, participation in sports and extracurricular activities teaches them collaboration and teamwork, and exams are supposed to be a feedback loop to establish the value of hard-work. This model works for most students (more so in urban environments, due to better teachers), but it has its flaws.
A classroom environment makes some kids refrain from asking questions for fear of looking dumb, and this makes them conform to things without understanding them. More importantly, it suppresses curiosity. Many kids are serial daydreamers (guilty!), for them a classroom is a great place to visit imagination-land. Further, our society generally lays a lot of emphasis on exam results. This can be damaging to the self-esteem and confidence of kids whose strongest qualities lie beyond the world of memorise and reporduce.
EdTech strives to solve these issues, let's understand how...
EdTech - a digital shift
EdTech companies strive to use the power of digital to offer - on demand and personalised experiences, to realise unique benefits of digital - like zero marginal cost, winner takes all, movie like visuals, and game like interactions. They hope to solve the problems faced by the traditional system, while building large digital learning platforms. Here's how -
- In the physical world or in the old cable TV world, the viewer had to listen to or watch what was on, at that time. For example, in school if it was an English period, one couldn't study Math. But by Netflix-ifying things, the entire catalogue of learning is available on demand. Now the student can choose, what to study and when to study it. They can pause, rewind and fast-forward their teachers, or play them on 2x. Imagine that!
- The traditional model had the teacher at the center, but the digital model is (obviously) centered around the customer i.e. the student. Apps like BYJUS have personalised performance trackers, and chapter wise progress reports for tracking. Think of it like a YouTube account, which not only tells you your watch history, but also your scores on chapter tests, your next lessons, and so on. So, no more backbenchers. Every student has a front row seat.
- Most knowledge based digital businesses have zero marginal costs, which means that the cost that goes into building the product for one customer, is the same as the cost to cater to a thousand customers. This applies to digital learning as well. Once the lessons and performance features of the app are ready, it can be used by any number of students. (Server cost is still variable, but it's a small component of the overall cost)
- As with all digital businesses, even EdTech will become a market with a few strong players, who would be able consolidate their position to gain more and more profits and market share. This is the reason most prominent players are on fund raising spree's - so they can spend on marketing, building new features, and expanding to newer markets. They know that once kids get used to immersive digital learning with videos and game like interactions, they would not want to go back to traditional learning. This conviction that once the kids are in, they wouldn't want to leave - makes them pay a high customer acquisation cost to add more and more users.
What impact will this have?
Better educational content
The nature of the internet is that it makes all the knowledge of the world easily accessible. It's a phenomenal blessing for curious people. But this same feature brings with it unending distraction.
So, anyone wanting to supply content digitally (more so to students), must deliver a product compelling enough to keep them engaged, and un-distracted. This forces EdTech companies to be super thoughtful about their offerings, and to continuously iterate towards improvement. Due to this dynamic, the result is usually high-quality, rich content - which ultimately benefits the student.
This would have a profound impact in rural areas, where good teachers are few and far between. EdTech has the opportunity of solving this problem digitally, since it's so much harder to solve it physically.
Educators and Institutions need to keep up
With more and more aspects of life going digital, educators and owners of institutions must understand the basic tenets of the digital world.
Even before digital became the force that it is today, supply's power in comparison to demand had been waning. This showed in multiple aspects of society, like -
- License raj (a system where one had to pay bribes to officials to get licenses to start and run businesses) - the supply of business licenses was controlled by the state, so government officials had all the power to decide who could or could not operate a business. So the demand had to yield to those who controlled supply. This ended in 1991.
- Newspapers publishers had all the power over writers, and would often underpay them, because writers could not reach the audience by themselves. Since, the publishers controlled distribution.
But now, in the digital era, demand is so much more powerful than supply. If X does not meet demand, Y will, and X will be out of business. Example - Kodak, Nokia, etc.
"Attention is the single most important asset." - Gary Vaynerchuk
So, once kids get used to learning digitally (and love it they will), the schools that don't adapt will be out of business.
Too much screen
This is an important issue. We've all heard that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates restricted their kids' access to digital devices. But nowadays, us adults are literally always on our devices, and that's what kids witness growing up.
That alone makes it super difficult to make kids abstain completely from these devices. And with schools adapting to the EdTech revolution, coupled with peer pressure promises to make it even harder. When we were kids, peer pressure was about watching WWE and cartoons on TV, nowadays it's about mobile phone games.
I like to believe that when I have kids, I'd keep them far away from digital devices for as long as possible, but I fully understand that this would be challenging.
What about other skills?
This question comes from a misguided fear that traditional schools will perish. But, that won't happen! Parents won't let it :P
The schools of the digital age, in my opinion would be, some combination of tuition centres, co-working spaces, and sports and co-curricular activity clubs. Digital coursework would be provided by a few leading players like BYJUS, which kids will access from their devices, and schools will offer wifi enabled rooms with care-taker trainers whose job would be to mitigate the digital divide, and maintain order in the learning rooms. Students would be part of clubs like debating club, drama society, football academy, etc. It's what they're calling the phygital model (physical + digital). Where the digital learning system delivers the coursework, and the school is responsible for learnings beyond the screen.
Sounds radical, but this is where we're heading as a society.
Also, homeschooling won't be as jaw-dropping a decision anymore. Because there will be independent learning platforms affiliated to education boards, and independent social clubs for children. I guess that's what the cool kids will do.
Why is all this happening? One wonders...
The logical answer is - the pace of change in society is so rapid that, there is little that educators can teach children (from a subject perspective) which would still be useful, when these kids are old enough to contribute to the economy.
So, the only thing we can teach them is - how to learn. Pass on to them, the love of learning, and make them active, self motivated learners. Because that would be the most useful skill in a fast changing world.
My granddad used to say - lawyers and doctors have to study throughout their careers. If he were here today, I'd tell him that now, every individual needs to keep studying and learning throughout their careers - nay, throughout their life.
Some credits -
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