250 million children in 250 million classrooms

The learning emergency

In one of the most successful memoirs in recent times, Educated, Tara Westover pithily explains what pursuing schooling against all odds meant for her:

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind…

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.

For a vast majority of the 250 million children of school-going age, education represents the only hope for transformation. Propelling oneself, despite all odds, to a different socio-economic level and the rewriting one’s destiny – this remains the most valuable evidence for intergenerational equity that we must aspire toward.

Intergenerational equity is a commitment that we make to every child, regardless of their background, that we will invest in their future and give them a fair shot at transformation. This picture of students in Bihar gathering every night under lamp posts at a railway station to study and prepare for examinations will give you a sense of why this is important1.

Any transformative education system must be designed and implemented to maximise learning outcomes for the student. Enough has been said on the importance of personalising learning pathways and atomisation of a student’s learning (the “chromosomal approach” to learning/instruction). A quintessential education system seeks to thoughtfully integrate the chromosomal approach within the framework of a cohort-based learning environment. The learning environment (i.e., the school) remains important as it provides a safe space for the students.

However, the following key challenges complicate this endeavour

1.     Achieving transformation with multiple active stakeholders (teacher, administrator, student and parent) is a complex endeavour. As a result, interactions amongst the different stakeholders may not always be user-centric, especially since the payor (parent) is not the user (the student). For e.g., there is large body of evidence that teaching at the right level is critical to help address endemic learning losses. This would mean classifying students according to demonstrated ability and not according to the grade-level determined by age. But parents may object to this as it is unpleasant to hear that a student is struggling.

2.     Feedback loops on learning and instruction occur at spaced intervals. As a result, the time to address a learning-gap may be long gone. For e.g., sitting for unit-tests when conceptual understanding is missing only harms the self-esteem of the child with little or no learning benefits. Students learn at their own pace and differently; therefore, a cohort-based learning environment with limited flexibility to personalise learning outside the classrooms does not help in most cases.

3.     Most schools rely on teachers to supplement/design content (lesson plans, tests) and deliver content effectively throughout the year. There is limited recognition that delivery is a complex exercise which requires focus and structured guidance. Designing content for interactive play is not entirely outsourced by schools. Mixing the two not only unreasonably extends a teacher’s working day (most of them are women with family-obligations) but also prevents them from specialising in one of the two – rather than doing both.

A reductionist view of this endeavour results in standardised curriculum delivery at scale and supplementing it with tuition which seeks to personalise. However, even here, most students fail to navigate the debilitating chasm between standardised curriculum at school and supplemental education at home. In 2016, we called this the problem of “disconnected learning gears” and advocated to liberate 250 million students from the unintended cruelties of adopting a standardised curriculum.

Thus, a complex failure across the value chain of education comprising family, community, and institution implies that most of India’s student population struggles with endemic learning losses and remain uneducated despite being enrolled in schools. Irreversibility of learning losses becomes obvious much later when the student becomes unemployable in the labour market. This implies that our much-vaunted demographic dividend is diluted and never able to demonstrate its true potential.

The pandemic effectively exacerbated the brewing learning crisis (to the surface), and accelerated its manifestation in a manner that was indiscriminate (rich and poor, literates and illiterates) and disproportionate (poor, more; illiterates, more). However, this emergency is not of the type that unifies people from diverse backgrounds toward a shared sense of loss. This is because despite access to cheap data, nearly 75% of urban children and 90% of rural children do not have access to appropriate hardware regularly and/or parental know-how to enable effective engagement.

For this India, lack of infrastructure, parental-detachment (from their role/responsibilities as teachers-at-home), skewed incentives (that are aimed at solving the most lucrative piece of the pie), and a peripheralisation of the child as a passive-beneficiary (as opposed to their active role and their perceived autonomy toward learning) have meant that the learning crisis has become a learning emergency. As a complex, multi-variate education system hurtles towards enforced digitisation, if we want our aspirations as a nation to become a reality, the time has come for the quintessential to become essential.

When we invested in ClassKlap in 2013, we believed that a full-stack, integrated-curriculum combined with the cohort-based learning approach was the recipe for maximising outcomes. As we celebrate Eupheus Learning and ClassKlap coming together to build the largest distribution platform serving Indian schools, we share insights gained over the past eight years that have augmented our hypothesis.

Before we do that, it is important to take a quick detour to remind ourselves of the contours of the education ecosystem in India and the unprecedented impact of the pandemic on this fragile ecosystem. We reflect on the future of schooling in India. After the grand reveal, we share why we believe that the coming together of Eupheus Learning and Classklap will transform a weary ecosystem desperate for an overhaul.

Future of schooling in India

Nearly half of India’s 250 million children rely on private school providers for their curricular learning. Private school providers constitute 30% of the total number of schools in India (~450,000). 90 million students attend private schools’ which charge between INR6,000 – INR12,000 in annual school fees (categorised as “affordable private schools”). 73% parents in India prefer private schools despite its inconsistent and variable quality and pricing (public schools charge no tuition fee)2. Parents believe that private schools provide better service and improved outcomes for students.  

It is obvious that the pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to this segment. Our conservative estimate is that nearly 5% of affordable private schools are in distress with ~10-15% having to restructure their credit obligations.

Is this an obituary for physical classrooms? We don’t think so. Supplemental ed tech “supplements” and cannot substitute schools. Given our socio-economic context, online schooling aggravates the disconnected learning gears for families with limited access and/or discomfort with digital tools. Schools, on the other hand, provide the “learning environment” as a community for students outside of home, bundled with consistent, curricular learning. But more importantly, schools provide safe day care. If India wants its “productive” labour force to work, we need to liberate parents from 24/7 childcare. In our excitement over future of online learning, it is important to acknowledge this fundamental truth.

In a recent survey conducted by Road Scholarz3, 90% of parents in urban areas and 97% of those in rural areas want schools to re-open. 75% of urban parents believe that reading abilities of their children has declined since the pandemic closed schools, despite a significant minority (23%) having access to online education during this period.

As schools strive to survive, many have long-term aspirations to rebuild better.

The resurrection of learning

Soon after the second wave, we carried out comprehensive/in-depth, qualitative interviews with administrators/teachers across 15 schools in India on how their practices have altered and those they are likely to persist with as the new-normal settles in. All the schools have a diverse student-profile (urban, peri-urban locations; first generation educated parents and others; different vocations/professions) and fee segments (between INR30,000 per annum and INR60,000 per annum) and represent mid-tier to premium school segments.

Based on the insights from the qualitative interviews, our analyses of the market landscape of Indian education, regulatory tailwinds (National Education Policy) and macro trends (increasing digitisation etc.), we believe schools are looking to redefine their value proposition for building and executing learning pathways by doing the following:

  1. Accelerate their luddite rate of technology-adoption to demonstrate value to parents and because they realise that technology is an enabler. In our interviews, most schools alluded to how they had to re-engage with parents differently when they fell short of transition to online quickly and effectively. Today, schools also understand that the right technological tools can help them stay agile, help teachers become more productive, save costs and improve student engagement.
  2. Become more appreciative of supplemental ed-tech that complements their offering. Whilst curricular supplemental ed-tech has attracted tremendous attention (private capital, marketing/branding), schools view such offerings as tuition centres/coaching classes.
  3. Understanding that this transition is permanent, given regulatory tailwinds. Schools agree that the National Education Policy’s shift to encourage hybrid learning has only been accelerated by the pandemic, although they remain conservative around its implementation timeline.

To understand if these trends are here to stay, we also looked at data on schools that we have across our education portfolio which serve affordable to mid-tier schools. Schools’ ability to collect any fees depended strongly on whether they had managed to provide some form of online schooling since April 2020. Majority of schools (~65%) which did not provide any content were unable to collect any fees. We also understand from the market landscaping that there is increased demand for tech systems that help operate schools, even among mid-tier schools (by fee segments). Lastly, pilots for 21st-century-skilling such as coding, reading clubs or teacher training on running online classrooms have been hugely successful.

Given the above, we believe that this is an epochal moment in the history of private schools and that the adoption of technology geared toward improving efficiency & outcomes will only accelerate. As more curricular and co-curricular solutions are designed better with technology, schools will need a trusted partner who helps them connect the disconnected learning gears through active curation of multiple best-in-class learning solutions. A trusted partner is the fulcrum which will help schools rebuild their value proposition with parents and students.

ClassKlap and beyond: building the outcomes flywheel

The Outcomes Flywheel

As pioneers in serving affordable private schools, ClassKlap has been at the forefront of envisioning an outcomes flywheel and we have been privileged to have a ring-side seat to that journey. Here’s what we learnt:

1.     Platform trumps product

The ability to build a platform – physical, digital or “phygital” – with deep relationships across a wide variety of schools (differential fee segments, board-affiliations) is essential to move the needle within this ecosystem on outcomes. Among schools, any segmented approach (whether focused on a particular fee segment, product or a combination) may help build loyalty and therefore, the brand, but its scalability remains limited to its original network. Thus, to materially improve outcomes at scale and connect the disconnected gears, a secular go-to-market strategy is essential.

In this context, I deliberately use the term “platform” over a distribution channel. The word “platform” assumes a two-way engagement between key stakeholders; it also implies designing the distribution channel for network effects that arise from customer insights which may not be ubiquitous otherwise. However, we believe that as we build the pipes, the transition to digital infrastructure that become progressively smarter is inevitable. Ultimately, schools will need to transition to reliance on technology-based interventions that sync with offline tools (such as books) and are scalable, reliable and provide progressively shorter feedback loops on student-learning and teacher-instruction.

2.     Achieving scale through collaborative curriculum design with schools

Schools have a strong preference for partners who can provide a wide range of best-in-class products and, guarantee an ability to redesign such products to: (a) the school’s socio-cultural context; and (b) their qualitative assessment of average student achievement (which may not always correlate with fees being charged). Repairing the disconnected learning gears is a labour of co-creation with schools. Nudging them towards it is more powerful than thrusting vertical integration upon them. Thus, in this world, modularity in offerings is a superpower, as is the ability to provide high-quality, responsive service.

3.     Accelerating the Teacher Flywheel

There is limited appetite among schools and teachers to execute additional work arising from vendor-partnerships. This may arise from lack of capability or capacity and/or such effort is unaffordable to schools which run on tight budgets. No attempt to personalise learning pathway should harm the Teacher Flywheel. And ideally, any such attempt should support teachers to help them achieve autonomy, mastery and purpose.

4.     Serving India’s addressable market without “death by CAC4

India’s addressable market for supplemental ed tech is not large. By most recent estimates, it is less than $5 billion, thereby resulting in mainstream players looking to global markets to bridge the gap between value and valuation. However, none of these providers can serve customers at $100 or less per annum. This is a sweet spot which may be more accessible through schools where CAC-spend is negligible. If a curriculum solutions provider builds trust with a school, they would prefer that partner to provide supplemental ed that addresses different types of problem statements for that school. Thus, being “curricular-first”, “classroom-first” is a critical advantage.

5.     Re-hauling pricing – towards a scalable, service-led approach to pricing

It is important to adopt a service-led, value-based pricing strategy. Schools across different fee segments come with constraints unique to their offering. Adopting such a strategy helps drive engagement and customer stickiness, resulting in multiple opportunities to cross-sell and deepen the relationship.

The way forward: adopting “Curriculum-first” and “Classroom-first” approach

When Amit Kapoor, Sarvesh Shrivastava and Ved Prakash Khatri (the founding team of Eupheus Learning) met us for the first time, they radiated an excitement for collaboration with schools which is rare. We were struck by their deep empathy for schools and their ambition to drive systemic change through value creation for schools. Within four years of setting up Eupheus Learning, the founding team has built a reach of 12,000 schools in an extremely capital efficient manner. Nearly 5,000 schools who teach ~2 million students have chosen to partner with Eupheus for its 21st-century-skills focused, curricular solutions: a testament to their high-quality execution chops and skill at building trust through service - especially in a world where trust and service are uncommon. Their prescience on technology becoming increasingly embedded in learning solutions empowered them to build strong relationships with best-in-class global, hybrid education solutions providers. These providers rely on Eupheus exclusively for unlocking partnerships with schools in India.

ClassKlap brings with it deep expertise in building out the Learning Genome and pioneering personalisation pathways for learning in affordable private schools. Its history of having delivered 30 million assessments and having improved outcomes for ~1 million student unique students belonging to a vulnerable parent-segment is a testament to the team’s mission-driven approach. Kushal, Kartik, Saleem and I are in awe of Varun and Naveen’s resilience and grit in leading ClassKlap during these turbulent times. To say that they were pushed to their limit is likely an understatement.

Isaiah Berlin, the polymath-essayist once said: “The proposition that education cannot help, that good money cannot drive out bad, seems to me defeatist nonsense: the history of thought from the Greeks onwards testifies against it.” As ClassKlap and Eupheus come together to build the largest education platform for schools in India, the original ambition to curate learning for 250 million classrooms feels within reach. After a decade, our wanderlust for this journey has only intensified and we remain impatient to collaborate.

Divya Venkatavaraghavan
Principal, Lightrock India

(The title is inspired by Gil-Scot Heron’s “The Revolution begins”)