Customized e-learning solutions: A futuristic approach to higher education?
The EdTech market is playing a crucial role in uplifting India’s higher education systems as currently there are about 4,450 EdTech Startups, assisting approximately 300 million school students. TeamLease EdTech is one such player, contributing to the growth of this sector. It is counted amongst India’s leading learning solutions companies that help universities launch, run and manage their own online programs.
India Business and Trade held an exclusive interaction with Shantanu Rooj, CEO and Founder of TeamLease EdTech to explore how EdTech companies are working towards providing customized academic solutions to students in India and how the e-learning platforms have evolved post-Covid19.
IBT: Tell us about the inspiration behind your business idea and the gaps you aim to address in the education space.
Shantanu Rooj: I started this company almost a decade ago when distance education in this country started flourishing. However, back then, it was primarily conducted through an age-old mode. Students who enrolled in distance education courses received a set of physical books, which the postman would deliver. They had to study on their own, and then later appear for examinations in person. That was the prevailing state of distance education.
Recognizing the emerging trends in technology, we realized that the internet was rapidly becoming a reality, and mobile smartphones were gaining popularity. With this insight, we firmly believe that the future of distance education lies in digitization. It was at that moment that we decided to venture into the digital distance education space.
The best way we realized to work on this model is not to set up our own service, but rather to assist universities at the forefront of the distance education revolution by enabling them to go digital and create digital versions of their distance education programs. This idea became the genesis of our organization – to help universities in designing, developing, and delivering their own online degree programs. This was the starting point of our journey.
However, as we delved into this domain and began our work with universities, two distinct realizations came to light.
Firstly, we noticed that despite completing these distance education degrees, many students were struggling to secure jobs. The employability of students graduating through distance education programs was a significant concern. They don’t get a job because they have a distance education BCom degree. The worst part was that people didn’t even expect to get a job. As a result, the prestige value of these programs in the eyes of an employer was absolutely dismal. This led to almost zero employability in these programs. And we firmly believe that this should not be the case.
The right thing to do is to ensure that learners who come to higher education have a pathway that leads them to build their careers, which unfortunately was not happening in the case of distance education. Despite obtaining a paper degree, we believed that this situation was akin to cheating the learners.
This realization demanded a change. TeamLease EdTech recognized that there were innovative approaches and solutions that could be brought in at the intersection of education and employment. The goal was to make online programs a viable and attractive alternative to traditional classroom-based programs. That’s where we embarked on our journey and got started with our mission.
IBT: What was the thought process that the team went through while conceptualizing and creating the product?
Shantanu Rooj: Our product is called “Work Integrated,” and our message to the students is simple: if you choose to take a BCom course online, you won’t be attending a physical classroom. So, you have plenty of time, right? Instead, we offer a unique approach where you will attend an “on-the-job” classroom.
Here’s how it works: When you opt for a work-integrated BCom program, you approach a university expressing your interest. The university will then provide you with a model that involves learning in two different classrooms simultaneously.
The first classroom is an online platform, accessible through your smartphone. Here, you will find lectures, videos, reading materials, and everything you need for your coursework. Professors will conduct online teachings, making it convenient for you to learn.
The second classroom, and perhaps the most exciting aspect, is in a corporate setting. You will be placed with an employer for training and practical experience. This means you will be learning while working in a real business environment, gaining valuable insights, and developing essential skills that complement your academic learning. Our work-integrated approach bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, offering you a comprehensive learning experience that enhances your employability and prepares you for a successful career.
In short, our Work Integrated Degree Programs offer a unique approach for students during their three years of graduation. Over this period, a student will undergo on-the-job training, gaining three years of valuable work experience before graduating. Additionally, during the traineeship, he/she will receive a monthly stipend of approximately Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, which helps cover tuition fees and some expenses.
The product’s key benefits are increased employability and practical learning. With decades of experience and an understanding of the needs of employers and students, TeamLease recognized the gap between skilled candidates and job opportunities. Thus, the Work Integrated Degree Program acts as a bridge to address this issue.
The student has two supportive pillars: the university and the employer. Both contribute to their development. The university imparts academic knowledge, while the employer offers practical skills. The program emphasizes learning by doing, allowing students to apply what they learn in real-world settings, and they earn while they learn. This combination makes the product appealing and significant to both stakeholders.
Through various experiments, trials, and errors, we underwent a process of learning and refining. The result is a product that addresses many challenges faced by Indian students, contributing positively to the nation. Our journey involved overcoming obstacles and learning from both successes and failures.
Finally, we have developed a product that is effective and successful. It saves students a significant amount of time as they can study while simultaneously participating in internships. This combination of study and practical experience proves highly beneficial for them. The product not only facilitates learning but also provides opportunities for internships, leading to overall growth and development for the students.
IBT: TeamLease EdTech is providing a modular multi-modal classroom including Online, Onsite, On-Job and Virtual classes. What business model do you follow to support this?
Shantanu Rooj: The Data model for our product consists of multiple modes of learning: online learning on the smartphone through live sessions with professors, virtual learning at the employer’s workplace during on-the-job training, and occasional weekend classes on campus. This blended format offers a comprehensive learning experience. As a result, a student will graduate with three years of work experience, making our product a definite winner in this space.
This product is designed to be highly beneficial for students, employers, and universities. From the student’s perspective, the course fees paid to the university over a year amount to just 25% of the stipend they earn, making it financially attractive. Additionally, graduating with three years of work experience significantly improves their employability.
Employers love this program because it provides them with a skilled and trained talent supply chain. Universities also embrace it as a pathway to enhance employability for their students.
To ensure affordability, we developed a model where the student pays only the course fees and nothing more. Students visit the university’s website, choose their desired program (e.g., work-integrated BCom), and pay the corresponding course fees directly to the university. We, as the service provider, assist the university in delivering the program to the student, and the university compensates us accordingly. This model creates a win-win situation for all parties involved and strengthens the bridge between academia and employment.
The services we provide to the student on behalf of the university are completely free of charge for the student. Our fees come from two sources: a portion from the university, as we assist them in delivering an improved program, and sometimes from the employer, as we help them build a talent supply chain.
The employer’s willingness to fund our services reflects their satisfaction and contentment with the program. This positive response from employers is evidence that India is progressing and evolving for the better. The transformation in the education and employment landscape is evident, bringing about positive changes for all stakeholders involved.
IBT: What were the primary obstacles in the initial teething years, and what strategies did you employ to surmount them?
Shantanu Rooj: In the conference room and on the drawing board, our program appeared promising. However, the reality in India is striking. There are millions of job seekers actively looking for employment opportunities and millions of employers seeking suitable candidates. The challenge lies in the matching engine, which is not working efficiently.
As we began implementation, we quickly realized that there were several challenges to address. The matching engine is at the heart of the issue, preventing effective connections between job seekers and employers.
Despite these hurdles, we are determined to find solutions and make a positive impact. Our goal is to overcome the implementation challenges and refine the matching engine to bridge the gap between job seekers and employers. By addressing these issues, we aim to improve the employment landscape in India.
One significant challenge we encountered was students’ preference for on-the-job training (OJT) closer to their homes. Many students are unwilling to relocate, even for great opportunities in distant cities. We had to address this issue and find a solution.
After careful consideration, we identified a sweet spot: providing students with OJT opportunities within a 20-kilometre radius of their homes. This not only meets the students’ preferences but also saves them additional costs associated with relocating, such as renting accommodation and arranging meals. Geographical matching plays a crucial role in the success of this model.
Another challenge we tackled is the matching skill set aspirations of students with the expectations of employers. Finding the right balance between what students want to learn and what employers require from potential candidates is crucial for the success of the program. We are continuously working on optimizing this match to ensure the best outcomes for both students and employers.
It’s essential to acknowledge that students may have aspirations beyond their current skill sets and abilities. While having dreams is valuable, hoping alone may not be a viable strategy for career success. Thus, counselling becomes vital to help students understand their strengths, skill sets, and potential areas of success in specific industries and job roles.
Recognizing the significance of this matching process, we developed an engaging assessment tool in collaboration with TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences). This tool provides valuable insights to candidates, helping them identify their strengths and areas of potential success in various career paths.
To support students in their career exploration journey, we offer this assessment test free of cost. By taking this test, students can gain a better understanding of themselves and make informed decisions about their future career paths.
For students, taking the assessment test is entirely free, allowing them to discover their strengths, weaknesses, and the industries and job roles where they have the highest chances of success. Armed with this valuable information, they can choose their employer and industry more wisely, enabling faster career growth.
On the other hand, if employers request the test for candidate matching, we charge a nominal fee of a thousand rupees. We have harnessed the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the matching process significantly. By incorporating various factors like geographical preferences, aspirations, skill sets, and educational qualifications, the platform has become more intelligent and efficient in pairing candidates with suitable open positions.
This continuous improvement in the matching process ensures that both students and employers find ideal matches, fostering mutual growth and success.
IBT: In your view, how can online learning contribute to enhancing learning outcomes in children and aligning with the objectives of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020? How relevant is physical classroom learning according to you, in the post-COVID period?
Shantanu Rooj: While digital learning has its merits, it cannot replace the physical classroom experience, where the proximity of a teacher to a student holds unique value.
Online learning serves as a viable alternative for two primary purposes. First, it caters to individuals who cannot afford to attend physical classes due to various constraints. However, it’s important to note that nothing can fully replace the direct interaction between a teacher and a student when they are physically present together.
Digital learning remains relevant when physical classroom attendance is not feasible, offering flexibility and accessibility for those who cannot be present in person. However, it is essential to recognize that the physical classroom environment continues to hold a special place in the learning process.
Digital learning provides a solution for individuals facing challenges like being from a village without access to good colleges or desiring to study in a specific university while residing in a different location.
One key advantage of digital learning is its ability to supplement classroom education. Unlike the traditional one-size-fits-all approach, digital platforms offer personalization, accommodating different learning paces and preferences. The concept of multidisciplinary studies is now a reality, thanks to technology’s enabling capabilities.
In the past, students pursuing similar courses followed a uniform curriculum. However, with the advancements in technology, modern students have access to diverse learning paths and personalized educational experiences. Digital platforms have revolutionized the educational landscape, allowing for greater flexibility and a more tailored learning journey.
The traditional approach to education involved fixed combinations of subjects, typically with six papers in the first year. However, technology has transformed this paradigm, enabling students to customize their own combinations according to their interests and goals.
Colleges faced significant challenges in organizing classes and allocating resources to accommodate these personalized combinations. Technology comes to the rescue as a powerful supplement, helping colleges overcome these obstacles.
Democratizing education is another benefit of technology. Students now have access to courses from various universities, allowing them to create their own degrees with diverse subject combinations. This level of flexibility was not feasible in the physical classroom setup.
The key is to view technology as a complementary tool rather than a replacement for traditional classrooms. When technology supplements and enhances classroom education, it opens up new possibilities and introduces a whole new style of learning. By harnessing technology effectively, we can revolutionize the education system, making it more flexible, accessible, and personalized for students.
IBT: What policy suggestions would you like to give to boost the reach and impact of education across India (with a hybrid approach)?
Shantanu Rooj: I advocate for a shift in the education system, with a focus on lesser regulations and improved governance. Education should be treated as an industry with service providers (colleges, universities, and schools) and consumers (students). Just like any industry, students are paying for a service and deserve the best possible outcome from their educational investment.
To achieve this, service providers must compete to deliver the best services to students. Education should function like an open economy with less regulation but effective governance to prevent any exploitation of students. The goal is to ensure that students receive the services they seek and pay for, without being deceived.
By implementing policy changes that promote fair competition and better governance, we can create a more effective and student-centric education system that meets the needs and expectations of the learners.
IBT: TeamLease EdTech exclusively partners with 40 universities across 16 Indian states and trains over 3.5 lakh students on its platform. So what is your long-term vision and strategy for the expansion of TeamLease EdTech in domestic and international markets?
Shantanu Rooj: As an India-focused organization, our primary goal is to address the employability challenge in India. We firmly believe that India presents a significant opportunity, and we are dedicated to making a positive impact on the country’s employability landscape. Our mission is to ensure that every student who learns through our portal doesn’t just obtain a paper degree but gains a learning experience that enhances their employability and secures them a job upon graduation.
Our vision for the next five years is to have at least 2 million students on our platform, engaging in multimodal education that offers flexibility, the ability to learn while earning, and modular programs. With modularity, students can exit and re-join programs, allowing for a personalized learning journey.
We prioritize high signalling value, ensuring that degrees earned through our platform are recognized and valued by employers. These programs are built on five inherent principles that aim to make every student employable by the time they graduate from our platform.
While achieving this vision may take time, we are dedicated to making a difference in the employability of students and are committed to our mission.
IBT: What are your key learnings and advice for new entrepreneurs?
Shantanu Rooj: EdTech has experienced significant fluctuations in investor interest over the past two years. Initially, it was highly favoured, but now it seems to be facing some challenges. As entrepreneurs, it’s crucial to maintain a steady and consistent approach rather than oscillating between extremes. Whether the initial hype or the current scepticism is right is uncertain, but staying committed to our vision is key.
To build a successful and sustainable business, entrepreneurs should focus on long-term viability rather than short-term metrics. While app downloads, subscribers, and course launches are essential, financial metrics such as revenue, profits, and cash flows are crucial indicators of sustainability.
Entrepreneurs must execute fast but start small, prototyping their ideas before scaling up and spending extensively. It’s essential to remain profitable, as sustainable businesses cannot rely on investors’ funds indefinitely. Taking investor money should be done purposefully, for scaling a viable solution, not to search for problems to solve.
A long-term perspective is vital in building a business that lasts for decades, not just a few years. Consistency in vision, team-building, product strategies, sales, marketing, brand, and execution are key factors in achieving sustainable success. By prioritizing long-term sustainability and responsible financial management, entrepreneurs can secure their position in the market in the long run.