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On the penultimate day of 2020, Unacademy, India’s second largest edtech unicorn, added a new company, NeoStencil, to its growing kitty of acquisitions. A government test-prep platform, NeoStencil was Unacademy’s sixth acquisition in the past 12 months.

The move bookended a breakout year for India’s edtech industry, which surged as educational institutes shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Edtech solutions, for the first time, went from being mere after-school remedial “supplements” to the main fare for over 285 million 285 million National Sample Survey, 75th Round Household Social Consumption of India Read more  students.

The impact was telling. In total, India’s mainstream edtech sector raised a cool $2.2 billion, and almost every edtech company added millions of free users after initially lowering their paywalls. Byju’s, the undisputed leader of the pack, now boasts 70 million 70 million Business Insider BYJU’S renewal rates stand at 86% Read more users for its interactive video content. Its rivals also grew in leaps and bounds. Unacademy quadrupled its paid user base between February and September to 350,000. Vedantu—a competitor to both Byju’s and Unacademy—claimed a 10X growth from its January 2020 user base of 50,000.

Impressive as these growth metrics may be, they gloss over a question that’s become most relevant in 2020—does online, at-home learning actually work? Till date, edtech companies haven’t put their financial heft towards creating a metric to measure learning outcomes. Or even if they have, the data isn’t publicly available.

“The first phase of edtech growth, the focus has been on customer acquisition. Stakeholders like parents and VCs rely on engagement and user experience as a proxy indicators. There isn’t a demand for deeper metrics yet,” says Vikas Verma, the investment director of VC firm Avaana Capital, who is familiar with India’s education sector. 

Billion dollar valuations for these edtechs are still based on the immense headroom for growth these companies continue to have. For the most part, their English-first, smartphone-friendly lessons are largely only accessible to elite, metro audiences—a mere 10-20% of the student population. By far, the most impacted group of students in India are the 113 million government school students (~50% of the total student population), who typically study in low-resource settings and have limited access to smartphones and online content. For them, school closures could mean a precipitous fall in learning levels.

In response to this need, a ground-up, open-source, “public” edtech superstructure was set up almost overnight. Powered by a motley crew of non-profit organisations like Avanti Fellows, Central Square Foundation (CSF), as well as state education departments and government teachers.


Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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