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In booming edtech market Indian students and teachers struggle with online classes

Written by Avanish Tiwary Published on 

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From not being able to conduct tests, gauge students’ attention, to struggling with having a spare smartphone, online classes have become a menace in India.

Mukesh Misra, 48, who has been teaching mathematics for two decades to a class of over 40 students in a private school in Patna, a tier-two city in Northern India, misses being welcomed by the clamor of his students in the morning.

For the last six months, Misra has been going to an empty classroom where every morning he sets up a tripod and affixes his phone on top of it. While doing so, he ensures the camera on his phone can clearly capture what he writes on the blackboard. Once he is done with his ritual of setting up the phone to conduct a live class, he sends a link to his students to join his class, on Zoom.

“In my 20 years teaching career, this is the first time I am doing something like this. “In the initial days of the lockdown, I was conducting the class from home, but it was a struggle for me as my students couldn’t clearly see what I was writing on a small board I have in the house,” Misra told KrASIA.

In his home, he had to resort to teaching on a small board, instead of a big blackboard that’s often there in schools, which he is used to. He had to repeatedly move his phone towards the board to show his students what he had written. Alternatively, he said, he tried several other methods like leaning his phone against a glass tumbler so its front camera squarely captures the whiteboard.

“Finally, my brother-in-law who is adept with technology suggested I use the tripod-phone system. He also taught me I could zoom the video during the class instead of physically moving the phone towards the board,” he explained.

In a country where a large part of the population is still digitally uneducated and platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom are totally new, Misra is not alone in having to adapt to this new mode of teaching. Especially in smaller towns and villages, teachers in government schools have to depend on their relatives and many a time tech-savvy students to learn the ropes of creating a Zoom call.

Challenges galore

In six months, although, Misra has gotten used to teaching online, he doesn’t believe it’s as effective as his previous face-to-face classes. Virtual classes provide much latitude for students to ignore the teacher and go on about their own businesses like playing video games on the phone or watch television. Many students, he said, just log in when the class starts to register their attendance, and 15 minutes into the class, they leave their system unattended.

“From so many tiny windows on the Zoom app, it’s difficult to track who has disappeared from the class. Should I teach or keep count of the students?” asks Misra.

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Arush Upadhyay, who has been taking classes on Zoom since March, is one among many such students who immediately leaves the virtual classroom after marking his attendance. “I never understand what the teachers say during class. Sometimes their voice is unclear as it echoes a lot or there would be noise coming from their house,” 13-year-old Upadhyay told KrASIA. All the teachers in his school-record the live classes and upload them on YouTube for students to refer back later. Upadhyay has been relying on these YouTube videos to catch up with his curriculum.

Another limitation of Zoom-based classes, Misra said, is that it doesn’t allow teachers to conduct tests in a way to effectively assess a student. Since, during unproctored tests there’s no way of stopping students from looking up answers elsewhere, Misra’s school has asked all the teachers to give open-book tests to students and set questions in a way that analyzes their understanding of the topics.

“There has been a lot of noise around Zoom classes, but Zoom is basically a conference tool that is sadly being used as a platform to teach. Schools need a learning management system that allows teachers to conduct lectures, take attendance, gauge student’s attention, and follow up with relevant study material as well as homework,” said Beas Dev Ralhan, co-founder and CEO, Next Education.

Lack of solutions

At a time when edtech companies are seeing unprecedented growth from all spheres—raising fresh funds, new student enrolments, and skyrocketing valuations—the country’s formal education space, essentially schools have continued to suffer.

Most of the funded edtech companies in India, including K-12 startups, cater towards providing educational content that merely acts as an add-on to the school curriculum and at most can replace tuition centers. There are only a handful of edtech companies such as Educomp and Next Education that provide schools with technology for online classes.

Hyderabad-based B2B edtech company Next Education provides tech solutions for schools that can allow institutes to run their online classes without any hiccups. The company claims its technology enables teachers to conduct online classes as they should be without compromising on the quality of teaching. It allows teachers to perform a gamut of exercises such as conducting pop quizzes as well as serious long exams like a mid-term exam.

“The camera records each and every movement of students and alerts the teacher if it finds out any sudden movement from a particular student. During the exam period, the system ensures nothing else works on the computer accept the question-answer tool,” Ralhan said.

He claimed, the proprietary camera tool can track students’ eye movements and picks up on cues to find out if the student is not in front of the laptop or if they have slept off in front of the laptop. “The tech also alerts the teacher if the student has opened any new tab during the class,” he said.

The company received over 1,200 requests for a demonstration from schools during the lockdown in the months of April and May. However, Ralhan said after running test classes for a week, only a quarter of them finally agreed to buy the subscription.

“The hard truth is schools have given up on online education and they are just doing it half-heartedly as they need to show they have completed the curriculum. When it comes to adopting the actual tools for online education, school administrations don’t want to pay money for it since there are free alternatives such as Zoom,” Ralhan said.

A private school principal based in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, told KrASIA that schools are aware of the challenges and the solution to this problem is not so simple. “Even if we buy the subscription from one of these companies, it will not work for us as it is supposed to. More than 90% of our students don’t have a spare laptop and they take online classes on an entry-level smartphone. These solutions are built to run optimally on laptops or desktops,” she said on the condition of anonymity. According to her, even the teachers don’t have laptops so it doesn’t make sense for them to spend on something which they know wouldn’t work for everyone.

Ralhan agrees that infrastructure is a big issue, and one can’t really conduct an online class effectively on a mobile phone. He believes there should have been better planning from the government and several education bodies around creating this infrastructure.

“Everyone kept waiting for the pandemic to get over and hoping normal classes would resume in the next few months. But the coronavirus is not going anywhere anytime soon and I think going forward when the schools open up, we will have a hybrid situation where half the students would come to school and the other half would be taking online class from home.”

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