Bangalore: Twenty-year-old Tushar Joshi is losing plenty of sleep.
For the last 11 months, he has been prepping for the Common Admission Test (CAT), the first formal step in his strategy to get into a business school. He spends his
days attending lectures at Arya College in Ludhiana, Punjab’s largest city, and then zips over to a two-hour-long coaching class. At night, his studies continue — online — as he downloads question papers from the website Tcyonline.com.
No boundaries: Gunja Bansal, a biology tutor with TutorVista, which offers a combination of offline classes with online tools. Photograph: Hemant Mishra / Mint
It’s a free service, but Joshi finds the practice tests and ability to take them on the computer — this year’s CAT will be taken on computers for the first time in November — so helpful that he says he would be willing to pay for it.
“It lets me revise the topics I’m taught in the classroom,” says Joshi.
The fast growing education sector is banking on consumers such as Joshi as it moves from brick-and-mortar classrooms to the Internet space. The last year has seen a flurry of activity in this arena, from Web portals to coaching sites to customized testing.
The website that has become part of Joshi’s nightly ritual, was launched by TCY Learning Solution (P) Ltd in September and provides free testing in 37 categories, from management and computer applications to law. It can afford to give tests for free since it has an offline model with some 40 physical coaching centres, which earned more than Rs5 crore in the year ended March — but even that model is about to change.
“In a couple of months, we plan to deliver live lectures and customized testing online for a fee,” says Kamal Vadhera, promoter and chief executive of the Ludhiana-based firm.
Even as a weakening pace of growth marks many sectors, education shows few signs of a let-up, with many observers saying that a slowdown might even force job seekers to get more training and education.
New portals launch every month and several more are expected, say market players, pointing to a seeming “recessionproof” nature of education. From a test preparation site for professional courses —www.100percentile.com — to a portal on studying in India and abroad, StudyPlaces.com, several sites have gone live in the last 6-12 months. There’s also some catering to the much younger set with www.extramarks.com, a tutoring site for classes VI-XII; www.24X7guru.com, an online assessment service for students from classes III-X; and a platform for virtual classrooms, www.wiziq.com.
Extramarks.com, which started in October, claims to have as many as 4,500 student users, who pay Rs300-700 a month for tutoring on various subjects. “We are targeting revenues of Rs18 crore by March 2009,” says Rohit Jain, CEO of Noida-based Extramarks.com Education Pvt. Ltd, which runs the site.
Most of the other players declined to disclose their revenue numbers, or even the number of paid users.
Says K.S. Murlidhar, CEO of Learnsmart (India) Pvt. Ltd, which runs 24X7guru, “We aim to break even by March 2009. In June-July, we saw a spurt in subscriptions touching 900, with many schools signing up” to test their students.
The average cost of a subscription is Rs1,200, but he declined to disclose the size of his current subscription base. 24X7guru.com, launched in August 2007, is the education content provider for the popular reality series on Star TV, Kya Aap Paanchvi Paas Se Tez Hain (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?), hosted by Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.
Brokerage firms predict high growth for the online education space in the coming years with saturation quite distant.
“Only about 2-3% of India’s student population is currently being serviced,” says Sulabh Agarwal, research analyst at Angel Broking. India is said to have the largest student population in the world numbering more than 120 million. The exact size of the online education market is difficult to estimate, says Agarwal, because of the nascency of the market.
Moreover, each portal is eyeing a different segment of the $40 billion (Rs1.7 trillion) pie, the size of the Indian education market, according to CLSA, the Hong Kong-based brokerage firm.
And test preparation draws the largest number of private players. Brokerage firm CLSA pegs the professional entrance test preparation market upwards of $1.7 billion. While test preparation remains largely offline, Sandeep Anand, president and CEO of 100Percentile Education Pvt. Ltd, which runs 100percentile.com, hopes to complement the offline classes.
“In the near term, we are not competing with the regular coaching centres, we are complementing them,” he says. The website charges Rs2,200 for the joint entrance examination, the qualifying test for the elite Indian Institutes of Technology, of 2009, providing 36 preparatory tests, which can be taken on a monthly basis.
Comparatively, offline coaching player Brilliant Tutorials Pvt. Ltd charges a fee of Rs61,100 for 480 hours of weekly classes, study and question material. But does Brilliant Tutorials consider the online players as competition? “No, not at all, considering the low computer and Internet penetration in the country,” says K. Ravi, general manager at Brilliant Tutorials.
Notably, the education portal space has drawn varied talent. Amitabh Nagpal, a Stanford University graduate, set up Studyplaces. com. And a group of IITians, a Stanford graduate and an Indian Institutes of Management alumni started 100percentile.com. Atul Kulshrestha, a chartered accountant who started Cleave Global e-Services Ltd, a business process outsourcing firm in the telecom and financial sector, founded Extramarks.com.
A user must have a computer with a broadband connection for using most of these portals as they involve voice, a whiteboard, or a portion of the computer screen on which multiple users can write, or draw, and sometimes video.
That limits the current reach of many of these sites.
According to the telecom regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) latest statistics, the broadband subscriber base was limited to a meagre 2.67 million at the end of September 2007, way behind Trai’s target of nine million subscribers by 2007. Abysmally low Internet penetration in India (at about 0.3% of the total population) dampens some characterization of the online contenders, who one day aim to replace the “talk and chalk” method, modelling themselves on for-profit private institutions as the US-based University of Phoenix, which awards online degrees after online classes.
But Indian entrepreneurs hardly admit to any worries on the Internet penetration front. “Getting education itself could soon be the reason for gettting a broadband connection,” says the ever enthusiastic Harman Singh, who set up WiZiQ.com.
There are naysayers though. TutorVista Global Pvt. Ltd has an online model for the US market with 800 teachers tutoring some 10,000 students.
But “in India, given the low Internet penetration and affordability of personal computers, a 100% online model won’t work”, says K. Ganesh, founder and CEO of TutorVista, based in Bangalore.
TutorVista operates a hybrid model in the Indian market through Edurite Technologies, which it took over in November 2007. Edurite offers a combination of offline classes with online tools such as Web-based content and e-learning products such as CDs and DVDs, which reach students through schools and its 50 tutorial centres spread across Kerala and Karnataka. The company is in the process of raising $15 million overseas to increase its tutorial centres from 50 to 300 to cover six Indian states.
The large education solution providers, Educomp Solutions Ltd and Everonn Systems India Ltd, also have significant presence in this space. Educomp Solutions has www.mathguru.com, a mathematics tutorial site started back in mid-2006, and majority stakes in www.learninghour.com, a tutoring site and WiZiQ.com. Meanwhile, Chennai-based, Everonn Systems acquired the long-time player, Classontheweb.com, an e-learning site for classes VI-XII, in January.
Most of these players are in a hurry to tie up with schools to attract students. They have already made their presence felt even in semi-urban areas. For instance, Sishya School in Hosur, an industrial area in northern Tamil Nadu, has tied up with 24X7guru.com to test its 450 students from class III-X. This is in addition to the quarterly and final exams that the children are already subjected to, at a cost of Rs1,000 per child per year.
Sixteen-year-old Pallavi Sareen, who lives in Nawashahr, some 85km from Chandigarh in Punjab, is an example of the reach of these platforms. She is currently using WiZiQ.com to prepare for engineering entrance exams, which she will take in the next academic year.
“I like the interactive feature of the website. Hearing the teacher’s voice and the whiteboard helps me understand,” she says. But Sareen remains unsure if she will rely solely on the online model.