Edtech’s Penetration In Rural India

Around the turn of the millennium, as computers started becoming ubiquitous in the urban classrooms, several factors were identified, which hindered the rural adoption of edtech in India

Edtech is here to stay. If you had any doubt a year ago, the last 13 months have resolutely removed all doubts. As schools shut down we saw children attending online classes, and learning online from a global repository of knowledge. However, while the pandemic catalyzed the greatest shift in modernizing school education since independence, it also highlighted several issues – the most glowing one being the “digital divide.” One cannot possibly expect rural India to cope with the pandemic when they are clearly internet-dark areas! Clearly? Let’s find out!

With 600 million people under the age of 25, India is the world’s largest youth population. Since the early days of trying to universalize school education (Kothari Commission, 1964-66), the urban-rural divide has been a major issue that the system has grappled with. Around the turn of the millennium, as computers started becoming ubiquitous in the urban classrooms, several factors were identified, which hindered the rural adoption of edtech in India:

  • Digital Illiteracy and Lack of Infrastructure
  • Access to proper devices and cost of data access
  • Inadequate skills amongst teachers to manage digital teaching aids
  • Language barrier
  • Gender inequality in internet access

As recently as 2018, TRAI reported that more than 500 million people in India still have access to only a 2G connection – most of who are from rural areas. This disparity has also created a supply-side gap, where most edtech products were being developed primarily for urban students – in English, asking for large up-front payments and spec’d for high speed internet, or expensive devices.

While the above is true, here is a data point to ponder upon: as per the BBNL (BharatNet) website, in March-2021, 1.6 Million internet users connected to the BBNL’s Fiber and Broadband network laid through Gram Panchayats, consuming a whopping total of 2.33 Million GBs of data. This is in stark contrast to the urban perception of rural India. Fact is, with growing access to information, rural India is developing at a pace faster than urban India. Broadband subscribers in rural India have grown from 12% in March 2018 to 29.1% in March 2020. What India is witnessing is perhaps the greatest unstructured private-public partnership. In November 2017, the second phase of BharatNet project was announced with an outlay of INR 310 Billion.

As of December 2019, India’s total smartphone user base had grown to 500 Million, with as much as 40 per cent of this user base hailing from rural India. As of May 2020, 88% 4G penetration was achieved. An ICEA report pegs India to have 830 Million smartphones by 2022. Buoyed by this growth in Infrastructure, content organizations geared up to grow with the rise in demand for vernacular content: music, videos, sports and News adopted a multi-lingual vernacular strategy overnight, to cater to the new regional audiences. 

We are looking at a watershed moment in India’s history, where for the first time, the rural Indian looks at technology as an enabler and not as a deterrent. From RanjitsinhDisaleputting QR codes on text books to Basavaraj Sungari using VR sitting in Belagavi, educators are innovating in the use of technology to meet the learning needs of their students.

For edtech industry, it represents a seismic shift with the focus shifting back to content. As technology progressively ceases to be a barrier, content is back to being king again. Organizations who have built business models on licensing hardware to schools, or bundled devices into their offering and therefore increasing cost of ownership, are today rethinking their strategy because rural India will adopt edtech solutions that suit them the best. Lending credence to Google-KPMG report’s claim that India will have 536 non-English Internet users by 2021, there is unprecedented demand for vernacular content.

For instance at Notebook, during last one year we saw more than 2 Million new users who could study safely from their homes and the best part is 40% of this usersare using our vernacular content for State boards like UP & West Bengal whereas the rest are using English content for CBSE students. Also more than 65 % of our overall users are from Non Metros.

The famous line from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’: “If you Build it, he will come!” also rings true for edtech in India – once content is created that is relevant, accessible and affordable to the rural student, adoption is bound to take place.

The author is Achin Bhattacharyya, CEO & Founder of Notebook

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