While the digital divide is still a challenge, the inequities and disparities that exist in the physical world are a much bigger hurdle to solve.
ORF: How did BYJU’S go from a 25-person physical classroom for test prep to the world’s most highly valued education-technology (edtech) company in the of a decade?
Divya Gokulnath: For us at BYJU’S, it was a clear case of passion intersecting with real needs. Our mission was to make learning accessible, effective, engaging and personalised for all students. We wanted to leverage technology and the intrinsic curiosity of students and help them become active and self-sufficient learners. Even when BYJU’S classes operated at an offline premise, its popularity grew exponentially. BYJU’S took the shape of test-prep classes that grew to workshops for 100 students to auditoriums with over 100 students, which further scaled up to stadium sessions for over 20,000 students.
During this phase, the team at BYJU’S travelled across the country to make quality education accessible to all students. Soon we realised that our education system was faced with three major challenges — the lack of access to quality teachers and quality content, the lack of personalisation in a traditional learning environment and learning in students being driven by the fear of exams instead of a love for learning.
We understood that to make a real impact on the way students learn, we need to start early — when students are grappling with fundamentals, as these are the crucial years that lay the strong foundation for lifelong learning. Think & Learn Pvt Ltd (the parent company of BYJU’S) was launched in 2011 with a focus on the K-12 segment. Consequently, we launched our flagship product, BYJU’S-The Learning App, in August 2015. Between 2011 to 2015, we worked and developed the idea of making quality learning accessible for everyone in the form of an app. Instead of focusing on how teachers teach or what parents expect from the app, we focused on what the students need to learn effectively.
Today, as India’s most loved school learning app and the world’s most valuable edtech company, we are working on building personalised learning experiences for students. Every student’s learning requirements are unique; our learning programmes have been designed to adapt to the learning needs of each student as per their style, pace and size of learning.
The key reason behind BYJU’S ‘relative’ success in the edtech space is the value it adds to the lives of its students. Today, we have 64 million app downloads, 4.2 million annual paid subscribers and an annual renewal of 85 percent. These numbers are a testament to the fact that students are enjoying the BYJU’S way of learning. However, we have just scratched the surface and have a long way to go before we call it a revolution.
ORF: How has India’s technology ecosystem enabled you to scale BYJU’S in ways that would not have been possible here even a decade ago?
DG: BYJU’S is and has been a digital-first company for a decade now. Technology has played a crucial role in shaping our journey to success and it continues to take great precedence in all our current endeavours. During our initial days, when BYJU’S took the shape of an offline test-prep class, our biggest hurdle was making quality learning accessible to students across the country. Our team would travel across the country and teach classes in stadiums filled with enthusiastic students. In 2009, BYJU’S launched online video-based learning for CAT through VSAT. This was a revolutionary step for us and was the first time that we used technology as an enabler to help scale our operation.
We have come a long way since then. With the help of our learning app, we have been able to innovate the way subjects like math and science are being taught, and personalise learning based on the individual capability of each student. The right blend of technology in our systems enables us to create personalised learning paths for our students, offer highly relevant recommendations, predict and solve their ‘real’ learning challenges. Our other important focus has been to use game design principles that are about fundamental human psychology and behaviour and drives certain reactions and outcomes from students.
The increasing smartphone and internet penetration in India have boosted the growth and adoption of online learning. According to several reports, today 70 percent of students in India have access to a smartphone and this is only expected to increase exponentially. Smartphones have an infinite reach and an incredible opportunity to impact learning outcomes of students across India. The affordability and ease of use have made smartphones a household device. In addition to this, screens have become the primary mode of content consumption for the young generation who now use technology, smartphones, tablets and computers naturally. Smartphones also reduce the disparity between students from metros and those from smaller towns by providing them with equal and personalised learning opportunities along with access to the best teachers from around the world.
While the digital divide is still a challenge, the inequities and disparities that exist in the physical world are a much bigger hurdle to solve. Just a small section of students has access to good schools and good teachers while the majority do not have access to quality education. Our best chance to solve this at scale is by using technology as an enabler with smartphones as a distribution medium so that high quality content is accessible to students across geographical locations.
ORF: BYJU’S has made a series of strategic acquisitions and collaborations that have massively expanded its reach and unlocked new models of content delivery. What is your philosophy with these business strategies? As a teacher in a tech-enabled world, how do you envision using digital platforms to capture the minds of the next generation and deliver premium learning content straight to their eyeballs?
DG: At BYJU’S, our vision is to make students fall in love with learning. Learning is the most integral defining part of childhood. In the years that I have spent creating learning experiences for children across ages, I have realised that there are limitless avenues for children to learn from. Books, movies, videos, television and the internet are some of the most dynamic mediums that aid a child’s learning. BYJU’S has managed to integrate these avenues through unique movie-like videos and gamified content that are tailor-made for students across age groups. We leverage technology to explain concepts contextually and visually to students.
Unlike a conventional classroom learning environment, a tech-enabled learning system allows you to reach students in every nook and corner of the country. The availability of data on the learning patterns of students allows for personalised feedback and assessment. ‘Knowledge Graphs,’ the brain of our learning system, makes this more effective. It is a graphical representation of how different concepts are related to each other and can direct the learning journey of a student by pointing them to the relevant concepts or information based on what they are learning at that time. This allows students to access our content at their own pace, get personalised recommendations based on their previous learning patterns and truly fall in love with learning. We have brought the ideal 1:1 teacher-student classroom experience to a more convenient form on mobiles or tablets. The device they use adapts to their level of understanding, understands their learning gaps and addresses those gaps by recommending the next set of videos to watch or tests to take.
In addition to this, today, screens have become the primary mode of content consumption for the young generation. With a screen, every student has a front row seat in the virtual classroom and there are no backbenchers. This new generation uses technology, smartphones, tablets, and computers naturally. They learn their first alphabets and numbers from the screens. At BYJU’S, we use the same format (screens) that kids use for entertainment and games and present learning content in the same medium.
As a teacher, technology has empowered me to be better. And I strongly believe that the future of education will essentially see technology create an integrated learning platform that will be an one-stop solution for students, teachers and parents alike. The proliferation of smart devices coupled with the democratisation of the internet will lead to blended learning, which will bring the best from traditional and virtual classrooms. The ‘classrooms of tomorrow’ will have technology at their core, empowering students to cross over from passive to active learning. The future will see us take a leap from the traditional one-to-many approach to blended one-on-one learning experiences, providing students the best of both physical and digital worlds. With technology as the backbone, we can create the ‘real global classroom’ where irrespective of their geographical location, school infrastructure and proficiency levels, students will be able to access quality education through integrated learning platforms.
ORF: How are you constantly evolving at BYJU’S, with the ongoing pandemic and series of strategic acquisitions and collaborations?
DG: We are an extremely agile organisation. We have constantly disrupted our own business model and strategies to create an even bigger impact. The ongoing pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to innovate and adapt to new circumstances. With students completely dependent on online learning, we witnessed over 15 million new students using BYJU’S in April and May. Additionally, we witnessed a mindset shift in parents in favour of online learning. Our own research showed that over 75 percent of parents whose children turned to online learning wanted them to continue to do so even after schools reopen.
We proactively responded to the situation and adjusted our short-term goals, while our long-term vision of making students fall in love with learning remained intact. With acceleration in the acceptance of online learning, we accelerated the launch of new products, such as our live classes, which were made available for free in April. While it was initially to be launched later this year, we realised the value of bringing such scheduled learning into the lives of our students during the lockdown. We have also launched learning programmes for history, civics and geography. We have made our learning programmes available in almost every vernacular language in the country. We also recently launched learning programs for students in upper kindergarten and lower kindergarten.
Given the fragmented nature of the private tuition sector in India, we also launched BYJU’S Classes, a comprehensive after-school learning solution for students across the country. With this, students now have access to scheduled online classes from India’s best teachers, instant doubt resolution and one-on-one guidance from dedicated mentors, all from the comfort and safety of their homes. The fact that these launches could happen with all our teams working remotely from home is a testament to the efficiency of India’s tech-enabled ecosystem.
The focus of our acquisitions and collaborations, too, has always been to strengthen our offerings and create holistic learning experiences on a single platform. Early last year, we acquired Osmo, a Palo Alto-based learning games company and we have now acquired the popular coding platform White Hat Jr. Increasing engagement and making students enjoy learning has also been a big component of our strategy. Our acquisitions have catered to our mission and long-term vision. The one question we ask ourselves is if it will be useful to students and if it will be used by students. This is the most fundamental part of our evaluation process. Overall, the focus has always been about coming together and creating something better for our learners.
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Divya Gokulnath is co-founder of BYJUS an ed-tech company in India.Read More +