Online vs hybrid: The big divide in education start-ups

Experts believe that in India, some amount of offline presence may be crucial for real growth in the long run


No one disputes the benefits of online education, but the jury is out on whether that alone will suffice. 
Photo: Sudipta Banerjee/HT
No one disputes the benefits of online education, but the jury is out on whether that alone will suffice. Photo: Sudipta Banerjee/HT

Bengaluru: Some of the online education providers that have quickly scaled up operations through videos, online tests and chat forums are beginning to realize the benefits of mentoring and collaborative learning, usually associated with classroom learning.

US-based Udacity Inc., one of the best-known education start-ups which provided only online classes so far recently launched Udacity Connect, a program where learners could interact with each others as well as with teachers. In a blog post, the company claimed learners in such a model were three times as likely to complete their program.

Udacity is yet to introduce the program in India, which has both online-only education providers—the preferred solution since it is easier to scale up—and hybrid learning providers who offer a mix of online learning and offline sessions. The latter limits scale and is more difficult to implement.

In India, test preparation platform Toppr (owned by Haygot Education Pvt. Ltd) which has raised $10 million and professional certification-oriented Simplilearn Solutions Pvt. Ltd which has raised $28 million follow the online-only model. Others such as test preparation platform Byju’s (Think & Learn Pvt. Ltd) which has raised $75 million, and tutoring start-up Vidya Next (run by Pengala Learning Pvt. Ltd) offer hybrid education.

Udacity plans to launch a program similar to Udacity Connect in India—one of its key markets—to increase participation and completion rates.

“We don’t want to exactly replicate Connect in India, because the problems here are different. We are launching a pilot called co-learn which is like a support group where learners can come together. This is to boost social learning and to get more people enrolled in Udacity, while Connect is to accelerate course completion,” said Vardhan Koshal, country manager India, Udacity.

The co-learn pilot has been launched in Bengaluru already and will be launched in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai in the next four months, Koshal said.

No one disputes the benefits of online education, but the jury is out on whether that alone will suffice.

Start-ups such as UpGrad (U Education Management Pvt. Ltd) and Unacademy (Sorting Hat Technologies Pvt. Ltd) are trying to bridge the gap by bringing social-learning and gamification elements to their online courses, hoping this would urge more learners to complete the courses.

“I believe online learning will completely replace offline. Offline learning can bring motivation, but the same can be replicated online, with personalised recommendations and so on,” said Gaurav Munjal, chief executive officer, Unacademy.

This strategy, however, was earlier used by Udacity, which recognized the benefits of personal networks.

“There will always be exceptions where people can learn completely online, and it is possible where you have to learn superficially, to let’s say, pass a test. But when it comes to in-depth learning where you have to assimilate and apply concepts, you need external support. It’s when the courses are hard that people drop out, and it is in cases like this that learning support and mentorship really helps,” said Mohan Lakhamraju, chief executive officer, Great Learning, a hybrid education platform that offers MBA.

Experts believe that in India, some amount of offline presence may be crucial for real growth in the long run.

“What we are seeing, especially with Byju’s, is that digital consumption is increasingly sharply—people are paying money and consuming through their tablet or smartphones. But you may need to have some offline presence so that your brand credibility is also established, parallelly,” said Vinod Murali, managing director at InnoVen Capital India, which has given venture debt to education start-ups Toppr and Embibe.

“For scale, for consistency, for the predictability around the brand, it needs to be more online, but for a little bit of padding around the sides, offline will help, especially in the early stages,” added Murali.

Another important factor to consider the benefits of having an offline presence is the localisation it will bring.

“Everyone learns very differently, and online learning will bring a higher availability of choice to individuals for them to learn according to their own patterns. In India, when a lot of learning happens through communication in local languages, a blended approach is more likely to be applicable than a pure online approach,” said Anand Sudarshan, founder of Sylvant Advisors, an education advisory firm which currently incubates 19 education start-ups.

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