Edtech Advocacy for the Future

With his book ‘Educating a Billion’, Arjun Mohan, who returned to edtech start-up Byju’s recently, gives readers an insider’s view of the growth of the sector amid challenges and opportunities, the problems it is trying to solve and the importance it holds for the future of the overall education system

Educating A Billion

The solution to educating a billion lies online with the help of technology and not really by building more bricks-and-mortar schools and universities, says Arjun Mohan in his book Educating a Billion: How Edtech Start-ups, Apps, YouTube and AI Disrupted Education. That belief is the driving force, as also the crux, of his endeavour. 

“Edtech was one of the sectors which became a darling to the investors and consumers during Covid-19. It emerged as the saviour to students and schools which were forced to a standstill by a virus,” says Mohan. However, he goes on, the love started disappearing soon after the world opened up after the Covid-induced lockdowns, and children started returning to offline schools and coaching centres.

“With this change began the negative narrative against edtech, criticising the lack of outcomes and methods followed by multiple edtech companies for fast growth,” Mohan points out. It was during this phase that the idea of writing a book on Indian edtech came to him. Through his own experiences in the edtech sector, he tries to make a dispassionate case for it.

“Whatever it has been made of this sector today, as someone who spent considerable time in close quarters with it, I can promise you that entrepreneurs, teachers and techies who drove the sector had genuinely tried to make education accessible, affordable and of top quality. Their effort was always in making learning enjoyable for learners so that learning and upskilling never feels like a burden,” says Mohan.

Educating A Billion is his effort to tell the story of those efforts and innovation, he explains. “I believe it is important for us to establish the positive narrative of edtech since that is the only way for our country with limited resources to uplift our skill levels,” he avers.

Here is an excerpt:

After over an hour of intense study, it was time for lunch. Food was cooked at the camp and students lived in the same building through the two-month camp. The break was for an hour, but in ten minutes, the children finished their lunch and ran outside. Vijay grimaced, ‘Now they will be off doing what they like the most. Give them five hours every day and still they will ask for more.’ Curious, I walked out to see what they were up to. They were all huddled around a kid sitting on a haystack with a small mobile phone which had a tiny screen. They were playing videos from Bollywood movies on a feature mobile phone using a 2G connection. The framed video and music were able to sustain their interest without any struggle. An idea struck me.

With Vijay’s permission, in the second half, I asked the children if they wanted to learn math like the Bollywood songs they devoured. To puzzled looks, I opened my laptop and played a video on addition we had done at BYJU’S as part of our new project on online learning. The video was in English, and I was worried the kids wouldn’t find it interesting since their fluency in English was subpar. To my surprise, there was pin-drop silence for half an hour as the presenter in the video went about explaining how numbers are added with the help of sleek animation which flashed on the screen. The kids loved the video and asked for more, to which I promised I would keep coming back and introducing them to such new things.

“The section speaks about how technology can make a positive impact on education and learning even in the remotest part of the country, through an anecdote from my life. The entire premise of edtech is built around this idea and this is the ONLY way to educate our billion learners,” he says. 

Mohan was one of the earliest students of Byju Raveendran, whose edtech start-up Byju’s caught headlines for its stupendous rise and controversies. Mohan, now back as the CEO of the company, has been associated with Byju’s off and on, either part-time or full-time. 

Interspersed within the lines are his takes on the working of edtech sector, including start-ups like Byju’s, WhiteHat Jr, upGrad, Khan Academy and others, in the country.  

Making a Case for Edtech 

Learning new things and teaching others are his passions, says Mohan. He insists he is on a continuous quest for knowledge to improve himself and people around him. He still gives classes to students. “I do not miss out on any opportunity to interact and learn something new. Lately I have picked up mentoring of start-ups and young entrepreneurs. I find the experience exhilarating and an opportunity to create a bigger impact,” he says.

Educating a Billion helped Mohan reflect on and think deeper about the problems the edtech industry has been trying to solve. “Now my conviction on how edtech can solve all major education problems we know of has become stronger,” he adds.

Currently he is focused on reviving the edtech sector which, he believes, “is necessary for our nation’s growth”. This book is an important part of the overall strategy, he shares, pointing out that there are a couple of more ideas on stories of education which he may work on.