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Regional edtech is the next wave. Who’s going to ride it?

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Good Morning [%first_name |Dear Reader%],

As a first-year English honours student, I would consistently encounter “translated” texts. Postcolonial literature is littered with examples of badly imagined, badly translated texts that murder both language and emotion. 

I thought a lot about translation as I prepped for this edition, because I believe that mainstream edtech is going through a profound change. Yes, there’s a whole breathless newscycle to tell you what’s going on with the companies. But edtech, on its own, is morphing out of its VC-bound shackles into, dare I say it, a public good. 

And one of the big keys to this change is language. Usually, regionally-spoken languages like Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, or Tamil are add-ons for mainstream edtech companies. It’s a second step to scaling, once the English language content has been created, and a solid distribution channel established. 

But how do you create edtech for a regional audience?

Speaking in tongues

This central question has heft, especially since the landmark National Education Policy (NEP) launched in 2020 has a dual emphasis on tech and language. Education in the mother tongue is one of the pillars on which the NEP is to be implemented.

Emphasising the NEP’s recommendation to use regional language as medium of education in both schools and higher education, [Amit] Shah said that it will help the country to utilise the 100% potential of the country. “Be it technical education, medical education or law education, when we do not teach all these in Indian languages, then we limit the capabilities and potential of our country. But when teaching all this in Indian languages, we will be able to utilise the 100% potential of the country,” he said.

Such big-ticket policies have had a definite trickle-down effect. States such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have their own apps that largely feature regional language content for students and teachers. But teaching in a regional language is fraught with problems. 

One, there’s the issue of which language to pick. Considering India’s incredibly diverse landscape, what a child speaks at home may not be the medium of instruction in their school, even if the latter is a regional language. Arriving at a happy medium at that level is complicated and politically fraught. Second, parents aspire to send their children to English-medium schools because of the economic mobility that English brings with it. Third is a problem of resources—both regional language texts, and bilingual teachers, are in short supply.

There are no shortcuts, but in a way, this is a perfect entry point for a tech solution. Bear with me:

  1. You can build/record lessons in regional languages
  2. You can distribute through WhatsApp or SMS
  3. You can put books online for students to read from
  4. The clincher? You can even train the teachers

If this sounds too simplistic, that’s because it is. Building for a regional language audience is not about optimisation. 

It’s about customisation. Before I go off the deep-end with my 2-cent MBA-speak, let me bring in a real expert. The context of every regional language is different, Utsav Kheria told me over a Zoom call this week. Kheria is the co-founder of Rocket Learning, a non-profit organisation that creates byte-sized, regional language content for government school students. The content is dually directed—it gets the parents involved too, because it’s mainly from their phones that children access the content.

For instance, a pyaaz (onion in Hindi) in UP changes to kanda in Marathi, saya Kheria. The nuance isn’t lost on users. Kheria also said that initially they got the onboarding wrong by asking for emails to sign up and many parents, in rural or semi-urban areas are unlikely to have an email account handy. The cadence of the lessons—how much, how little, how intense—also depends on the region they’re dealing with. “In states where learning was hit particularly hard by Covid, the size of the lesson and frequency would differ, even between urban and rural areas,” says Kheria.

Even the kind of shooting they do for their video content library has undergone some changes after inputs from local teachers. Initial videos looked “too urban” in their setting. So Kheria and team made an effort to fix that and shoot in semi-urban or rural areas.

By now, I’m sure you’re picking up on one core tenet—making regional content isn’t just about language. It cuts across social and economic realities as well. Kheria’s last statement to me sums things up well. “It’s also about time poverty. How much time can the parent afford to spend at home with the child?” he says. 

Creating regional edtech, it seems, needs a new organisational brain. And with growth already stalling for edtech companies, it could soon become more essential than scoping out the next acquisition.

Back Bench

The will they, won’t they with Byju’s audited financials continues. The edtech behemoth is now 17 months late in filing its financial results for 2021. Soon after The Ken first broke this news, Byju’s sent out a quick clarification that it was going to file within the month, and that the delay was due to the eight acquisitions it had made in quick succession. 

Well, that month was June.

We’re well into August, and Byju’s is still, reportedly, waiting for a nod from its auditor Deloitte. And a report in The Economic Times indicates that this delay may balloon into a tax headache in the future.

In the absence of an audited financial statement, the company, one of India’s most valuable startups, filed its income tax returns after roping in a Chennai-based audit firm, Suri & Co, under a special provision [rule 6 (g)] in the income tax laws, said executives in the know.

Filing of returns is a must for companies to carry forward losses and set off against future profits. While Byju’s has filed the returns, experts said the tax department has the option to reject such accounts and order a special audit.

Byju’s, for the first time in 11 years, can’t seem to kill/fight/change the swirling perception problem. Delayed financials were also accompanied by serious questions around its Aakash acquisition, its last crop of investors, and mostly worryingly, about its core financial stability. 

My guess is that all these worries for the founders only play second fiddle to the chief problem—what business model should Byju’s back now? Online K-12 has shrunk; offline centres, though popular, could be a time and money sink. Whittled down, Byju’s real business (in India) is now tied to how well Aakash and its own physical centres do.

The idea of a “super exam” may not go down well with Indian students. After introducing the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for university entrances, the UGC has proposed setting up one mega entrance exam. We should combine JEE (for IITs) and NEET (for medical colleges) into the CUET, it says, so that students don’t have to give multiple exams. 

In a country where millions of students give hundreds of entrance tests every year, this is a moonshot idea. And like all moonshots, this could be either very bad, or transformational. For one thing, rolling in separate tests will effectively kill the niches that the tuition industry has spent decades building. Institutes like Resonance and Byju’s-owned Aakash will have to adapt quickly to CUET, or perish. In the worst case scenario, the whole shadow exam prep industry—tuitions, as they’ve been fondly called for generations—will be depleted.

For students, one exam, once a year sounds attractive in theory. But it doesn’t factor in what happens when things go awry on that one day. If the new CUET exam is any indication, implementing a centralised test is an organisational nightmare. Twitter, currently, is littered with student complaints on how botched their CUET experience has been.

Exam centres are located too far away, admit cards have the wrong dates on them, and some centres even flat out cancelled the exam on the day it was slated for. 

Linking NEET and JEE, the most sought-after and hotly-contested entrance tests to CUET’s rickety train doesn’t seem like a good idea right now. Not, at least, till the National Testing Agency can figure out how to conduct this mega exam without glitches. Students would rather double-up than put all their eggs in one basket. Until then, the tuition industry can breathe a bit easy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed opening up your work week with Ed Set Go



This newsletter has been discontinued. But you can read The Stack which includes our newsletters around cleantech, fintech, personal finance and e-commerce in India!