At the beginning of the year 2020, nothing was surprising. Students and Teachers returned to the classrooms after the winter vacation, and it was education as usual. Schools prepared for the Board Examinations in India and eventually, most of the students were able to write the examinations in March. No one anticipated that the next academic year 2020-21 would be very different, the unimaginable.

The National Survey of 100 School Principals done in March 2020 by Strategum Eduserve, clearly showed that the Schools were caught off-guard. None of the Schools expected the impact to last longer and were mostly prepared to reopen schools in June 2020. Sadly, this never happened.

As an educator working at the ground level with private school owners, I am dismayed with the stakeholders’ response – Government, Affiliation Bodies, District Education Officers, School Owners, Principals, Teachers, Parents and Students. Clearly, the Year 2020 would be remembered as a year that unmasked education in India.

Response from Government

The response from the Government and Affiliating Bodies has been inadequate. A small princely State like UAE was able to train thousands of teachers for online teaching and set best practices and guidelines for Schools to move to a blended/online learning, within the first few weeks of schools’ closure. In India, the Ministry of Education issued the guidelines for online education in July 2020, with little efforts to make it useful at the ground level.

What has been alarming is that many State Governments issued a diktat to stop online classes conducted by Schools and, more dangerously, ordered Schools not to pressurise parents to collect School Fees. Private School Association led by teachers had to approach Court, Social Media, and understanding Parents to reverse those decisions partly. While in the USA and other developed economies, reopening of Schools was set amongst the top national priority, it was of least importance in India.

Joe Biden, the newly elected President of USA, tweeted on December 23, 2020:

“In the first 100 days of my administration, we will:

– Ask all Americans to mask up

– Administer 100 million vaccine shots

– Get most schools back open

We’re going to contain the virus and get back to our lives.”

Contrast this with the Indian leadership, where there were no outreach programs with School Teachers, Principal and Owners initiated by the country’s top leaders. The priority was to appease the students and parents and focus on examination and results declaration.

The Cabinet Minister for Education, Dr Ramesh Pokriyal has been outstanding across all social media platforms to reassure students and address their concerns promptly. I don’t recall any other Minister leading from the front in the crisis. The release of the National Education Policy 2020 is a testimony of the Minister’s commitment to usher change in India’s education space.

Education being a subject of State and Central Government could have done more for the education sector. The Sector’s challenges are many – thousands of teachers have lost their jobs, many small preschools and schools have closed down forever, fee collection from parents has been a concern. The ancillary industry supporting Schools like uniform and book suppliers, event organisers, transport service providers, catering staff, housekeeping and security agencies has been severely impacted. The ripple effect of schools’ closure is perhaps least understood, and the Government must see the education sector in its totality. A statement of support from the country’s leadership to small private schools and recognition of their challenges would have been very reassuring. I wonder why the entire machinery of Government including the NCERT, RIE, NUPEA and similar organisations failed to support the schools, colleges and universities in preparing for the online education. As a country, we could have done much more to support our educational institutions.

Response from Private School Owners, Principal and Teachers

I want to send a big shout out to the resilient teachers of India’s education sector. The stories of innovation, juggad, and adoption to online education by teachers is most impressive and also dreadful, in the same breath. While many of the premium private schools offered online instruction using the available tools like Google Classroom, Zoom and similar, most of India’s 14 lakh Schools struggled to conduct classes online. Schools faced a dilemma of investing in IT Infrastructure for teachers working at home without laptops/computers sans the assurance of parents’ fee income and support.

The Schools failed to prepare for the online education with concrete plans, budgets and coordinated efforts with all stakeholders. Parents assumed that the cost of delivering online education is less expensive than the cost of education in a physical school. Only a few Schools with a culture of parent participation and community involvement succeeded in moving smoothly to the online learning model. As a result of this, there has been a loss of trust and understanding between Schools and Parents. This is also because most Indian Schools operate their business in the disguise of “charitable institution”. The income-tax laws, affiliation requirements and statutory provisions for educational institutions need an urgent change in approach and fundamental understanding of the education sector. Education sector must be accorded the status of an industry, like the Hospitals and Nursing Homes.

Schools that planned to mirror the physical school time table online with over 6 to 8 hours of daily online classes have done a disservice to the community. However, they are not to be blamed alone. There was a complete lack of information, training and guidance from any Government, Private, NGOs or Quasi-Government Body. This also highlights the lack of quality educational research, journals and publications in India. Only a few research journals are available, and even those do not have the readership that it should command as thought leaders in the sector.

YouTube has many videos of online teaching gone wrong. The Social, Print and Electronic Media highlighted and made a laugh of such teachers, but did they help improve the system? Little they realise, such coverage undermines the teachers’ efforts who, without training and guidance from the system, were asked to teach online almost overnight. Who should be mocked – those teachers or our education system starting from the Ministry of Education? It is painful to see the hardworking teachers singled out for their failure, for their efforts that did not generate the desired outcome. We have collectively destroyed the guru-shishya parampara over the years, without realising the after-effects on the children and their relationship with teachers.

The Unmasking

Given the upheaval and crisis, our educational institutions have gone through; we should celebrate the year 2020 as it led to the rise of the ‘for-profit’ education model in India. A 2017 Report on Online Education in India by KPMG, states that “India’s online education market currently stands at USD 247 million and is estimated to witness an 8x growth over the next five years to reach the USD 1.96 billion mark in 2021. This growth will be backed by a phenomenal rise in the paid user base for online education in India, which is expected to grow from the current base of 1.57 million users to 9.5 million users in 2021 at a CAGR of 44%.” This data from 2017 surely did not anticipate the impact of Covid19 in further accelerating online education adoption in India. I expect the numbers to exceed beyond our limited imagination and understanding of the significant changes happening in the sector.

> The formal education space involving schools, colleges, and universities is only a small pie of today’s education market. The sector is unlikely to grow exponentially, given the regulatory challenges and limiting laws in general.

> The informal education space involving homeschooling, tuitions, daycare, preschools, coaching, re-skilling, vocational institutions, events, after-school programs, summer school programs, short term certifications, media and art classes, and so on is set for explosive growth due to high adopting of online education and ‘for-profit’ nature of the organisation involved. This informal education is beyond the Ministry of Education’s regulatory ambit and has seen the highest interest from Investors and Venture Capitalists.

Edtech was one of the top-three funded sectors in terms of deal volume (84) in 2020. In terms of capital raised, edtech startups came out on top, with a whopping $1.8 billion, according to YourStory Research. (Fintech was the second at $1.58 billion) KPMG estimates that there are more than 3,500 edtech startups in India today. Further, the Ministry of Human Resource Development projects that the country’s edtech expenditure would reach $10 trillion by 2030.

I am fortunate to co-found India’s first online School – 21K School along with EdTech enthusiasts Santosh, Joshi and Dinesh. The 21K School, and the recently launched 21K Skills, offers an opportunity to provide transparent, equitable and accessible education across the length and breadth of the country. Driven by data, I hope to correct some of the shortcomings of the physical schools. It is an exciting opportunity to put into practice my eighteen years of experience and understanding of the sector.

India’s education sector’s future is very different from what it used to be at the beginning of 2020. The industry is all set for a forced reboot, unmasked by schools’ pandemic and prolonged shutdown. It would do good for traditional educational institutions to think ‘out of the box’ and tide high with the winds of change.

I believe that every successful traditional educational institution can grow to become a successful EdTech Start-up. It requires vision, guidance and leap of faith, and I will be happy to help such schools unmask the opportunities and possibilities of the future.

Happy New Year!