By Rishi Razdan and Alexandra Tate

Most education experts agree that the poor quality of teachers, lack of personalized pedagogical methods, and absence of effective means to track student progress are key issues plaguing the Indian education system – resulting in low learning outcomes and poor retention amongst the 260 million students in Indian schools.

In response to this, a vibrant start-up community, enabled by impact-focused investors such as the Micheal & Susan Dell Foundation, Acumen and Unitus Group, has created an explosion of products and ideas in education. A number of innovative social enterprises, operating in different parts of the education value chain, have emerged from this explosion. ConveGenius is one such social enterprise that designs educational tabs with gamified content. It aims to boost student engagement and retention through fun, interactive pedagogy. The tab can be synchronised with coursework, to act as a supplemental tool, in class or at home. The fully loaded cost of a ConveGenius tab, called CG Slate, including hardware, software and course content, is about INR 7500. However, the cost drops down to as low as three rupees per day in a classroom-based sharing model when five students share one tab. The relative affordability of this product promotes greater social impact by making it accesible to the BoP.

Avanti, another young social enterprise, focuses on preparing high-potential, low-income students for college. Avanti Gurukuls provide educational infrastructure for students and arm competent, passionate teachers with technological tools that personalize learning and track progress. A third of Avanti’s students cleared the JEE mains in 2016 – a resounding validation of their potential to make an impact.

Another impactful, innovative social enterprise solving a problem – albeit, in a different part of the value chain – is OnlineTyari. Government jobs in India, are primarily acquired by middle-class aspirants; those with access to coaching centres and crucial information regarding exam notifications. For lower-middle income groups, especially in small-towns, these entrance exams are a maze due to the lack of organized information, and minimal access to quality coaching or preparatory material. OnlineTyari, tries to solve this problem by providing government job aspirants with access to exam notifications and quality test preparation material – from e-books to news and mock tests – on their mobile app. Their user-base of nearly half a million daily users, with a majority based in tier-II and III cities, exemplifies how digital tools can amplify access to opportunity.

Improving ed-tech assesments using comparative practices

While technology-based innovations have augmented a re-imagination of education across the value chain, doubts regarding their actual impact persist. Education is perceived as an important social good, a consequential good that benefits society at large. Consequently, new products and services in education must prove their effectiveness before they are fully adopted. Proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that education technology products are effective and viable in the Indian system, is key to attracting more investment and driving adoption.

Clinical research practices, used to prove the effectiveness and viability of new treatments, can serve as a model on how to adopt similar practices in ed-tech. In fact, clinical research and educational research face shared ethical and practical constraints, as well as also many possible, shared solutions. For example, clinical researchers have been able to improve the generalizability of study results by increasing the rigor with which outcomes are assessed, e.g. tracking outcomes over a period time, instead of just at a single point. ConveGenius is a prime example of an ed-tech company that has already begun tacking outcomes over time. ConveGenius’ CG Slate consistently tracks student usage and learning outcomes for parents and educators.

Due to ethical constraints, students – like patients – cannot be assigned to another pedagogical method or treatment that researchers believe is inferior. To solve this, clinical researchers often determine the internal validity of a treatment by measuring pre-treatment and post-treatment outcomes, and report the underlying characteristics of the population. The same should be done in ed-tech. The underlying characteristics of the student population must consistently be reported and pre/post-learning outcomes should also regularly be reported. In order for the education sector to improve the external validity of product effectiveness and viability, product assessment tools and methodologies must be published and shared. The entire ed-tech ecosystem can also benefit from a standardization of assessment methods, making assessments more economical and generalizable. Standardized and improved assessments of product effectiveness and scalability will result in better technology for non-profits, safer investments for multilaterals, economies of scale while testing for enterprises, and knowledge sharing where possible for all involved.

Ensuring meaningful impact in rampant growth

The Digital India campaign is driving huge growth in digital infrastructure and digital learning. In order for new infrastructure to be utilized, there must be equal effort and resources spent to integrate and assimilate new technologies into the education system. Rural areas, in particular, have a low adoption-rate of technology due to a lack of technology enablers. Government, non-profits, ed-tech companies, and investors can all play a role in ensuring the seamless integration of technology into new environments and classrooms. This growth in infrastructure is encouraging the development of new ed-tech products as well as the demand for more creative and engaging content.

Ironically, the frenzy of innovation has become an impediment to proving the effectiveness and viability of education technology, primarily due to two reasons. First, a high degree of competition puts immense pressure on entrepreneurs to expedite product development and going to market. The time-constraint makes it impossible to steadily test product effectiveness across a large enough sample. It is widely believed, for example, that it takes three years to significantly impact students’ learning outcomes – time entrepreneurs don’t have. Second, the nascent stage of most Ed-Tech enterprises creates a resource constraint. Designing a great product is often step zero for an enterprise; enterprises need to dedicate a significant amount of resources to integrating their products into existing systems, by conducting trainings and customizing their products for clients. Conducting lengthy pilots with large samples of students is a poor micro-economic decision for them. These deep-seated problems can only be solved through stakeholder collaboration.

Stakeholder collaboration and buy-in on the importance of product assessment can ensure that rampant growth in the ed-tech sector leads to meaningful and lasting impact. Ed-tech start ups will only invest in intensive product assessment methods if investors demand it and the ecosystem values it. Government should encourage information sharing and standardization of assessment tools and methodologies; investors should mandate proper assessments by start-ups; ed-tech entrepreneurs should adopt and share the best practices for assessment; and non-profits should aim to promote and integrate only the products that have been assessed as effective.