“We are in the second inning of EdTech,” explains Jenny Lee, Managing Partner at GGV Capital specialising in education and technology. “In the first inning, we were trying to figure out which model works. Now we’re in the second inning where it’s about the sensation and execution.”
Unsurprisingly, this execution of online learning varies from country to country. In more impoverished regions of rural India and Indonesia, it fills in for schools that lack money and qualified teachers. Meanwhile, in wealthier urban areas it’s providing extra tutors and training for an emerging middle class. And then there are the mature markets like North America and Europe, where students and workers are turning to advanced online learning tools like virtual labs to ensure their skills are keeping pace with the rapidly expanding knowledge economy.
In many ways, the online learning sector is unique in its ability to adjust to different markets. Unlike some industries that experience a life-cycle of growth, maturity and then stagnation, the online learning sector demonstrates that it can evolve and transition from one untapped opportunity to another.
India, Edtech’s ‘star pupil’
Here’s a question. What do Google, Microsoft, Zoho and many other wildly successful companies from Silicon Valley to Singapore have in common? The answer is that they are all run by people who were schooled in India.
India’s ability to produce exceptional students is undisputed. But as with most developing countries, this pathway to success through education can be uneven – with students in cities progressing quickly while students in rural areas struggle.
Almost half of India’s schools don’t have electricity, and more than 17% of the country’s secondary students don’t graduate – in some states, it’s over 30%.This disparity isn’t resolved easily. It takes years to train more teachers and build better schools. But in a country where Internet users are expected to reach 900 million by 2025, there is a solution at hand.
When an engineer and entrepreneur named Vamsi Krishna decided to focus on the education sector, he started with a small brick-and-mortar school in rural Punjab with just 36 students. Today, he runs an online learning startup called Vedantu that has more than six million.
Vedantu has carved out a niche in India’s thriving EdTech industry through its offering of live and interactive classes with teachers, while its YouTube channel has emerged as one of the largest K-12 platforms in the world.
EdTechs like Vedantu are transforming the education landscape in India, leveraging the power of the Internet to help the country leapfrog into a future where a rigorous yet affordable education is available to everyone, whether they live in a city or on a farm.
“We have seen the power of education in our lives,” said founder Vamsi Krishna. “That’s the mission of Vedantu – to provide a 10x better version of the best offline experience at a quarter of the cost.”
India’s success in online learning is being replicated all over the world, sometimes in places where the challenges appear even more daunting.
Indonesia’s Edtech play
It isn’t easy to get around Indonesia. The country’s 270 million people are scattered across thousands of mostly undeveloped islands along the equator. But as with India, the Internet and mobile phones are beginning to reach areas where other basic infrastructure like clean drinking water is still unavailable.
In the last year alone, almost 30 million Indonesians started using the Internet for the first time. Following quickly on the heels of this rapid adoption of technology are EdTech companies like Ruangguru.
Founded just seven years ago, Ruangguru has emerged as the biggest EdTech in Southeast Asia with more than 22 million students. Named one of the world’s top 25 most innovative companies by Fast Company, the startup is capitalizing on Indonesia’s large yet underserved young population while expanding its curriculum to more than 100 subjects and reaching new markets in Thailand and Vietnam.
Developing countries with youthful populations and rapid Internet adoption provide fertile ground for EdTech companies to deliver affordable access to quality education. But the opportunities don’t end there. Wealthy developed countries with mature populations are proving to be just as promising.
South Korea’s booming demand
South Korea has one of the finest education systems in the world, ranking near the top in math, science and reading. But this hasn’t dented demand for online learning.
The startup Mathpresso has developed an app called Qanda that helps more than 1 million South Korean students solve complex math and science problems. Using an AI-based optical character recognition scan, the app typically provides solutions within five seconds.
Spurred by increased demand during the recent lockdowns, Mathpresso saw its user base increase 5x over the last year to reach more than 9.8 million monthly users in 50 different countries. The company recently raised another $50 million to strengthen its AI algorithms and expand its presence in Indonesia and Thailand.
From live tutoring for children in India to advanced AI-driven solutions in South Korea, the demand for digital learning tools shows no sign of slowing down. Even in the most developed education systems in North America and Europe, innovative EdTechs continue to find untapped markets.
A Denmark-based startup called Labster is taking a cue from the gaming industry to tackle the high costs of science laboratories. Using the power of immersive 3D virtual worlds, Labster can provide an online laboratory experience that is the same if not better than the real thing.
“One of the major challenges in science education is that the facilities are very expensive,” said Labster founder Michael Jensen. “So we set out to replicate the success of the flight simulators that train pilots – helping schools reduce costs while still increasing the learning outcome.”
Jensen is already looking ahead to the next stage of online education when ubiquitous 5G networks and affordable virtual reality headsets have the potential to make online learning almost indistinguishable from learning in a real classroom.
“The price point needs to come down to around $100 per quality VR headsets,” Jensen said. “It will take a few more years.”