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[The Outline By Inc42 Plus] Edtech Turned Pied Piper

[The Outline By Inc42 Plus] Edtech Turned Pied Piper

Are edtech startups going too far with their fear tactics in marketing campaigns and ads?

“Coding will make your child future-ready. Prepare your child for the digital frontier” — a Toppr Codr ad on YouTube

“7 lines of code can detect a black hole; Become the number 1 game designer at the age of 13” — a Facebook carousel ad by WhiteHat Jr 

“Give your teenager a head start. Watch your teen design and pitch their own business plan in 10 hours” — a Google search ad by Clever Harvey

Imagine you are a parent in today’s hypercompetitive, hyperconnected world — would seeing these ads in the right context make you scared about your kid or children missing out? Would skipping the ad and not clicking on it mean that you are not giving your child the best chance to succeed in life? 

Edtech is peculiar and much different than any other startup sector in that the primary education segment caters to kids, but it’s the parents that are decision makers. And of course, the above very-real campaigns are looking to loosen the wallets by using an age-old weapon: fear.

Startups are simply rehashing fear marketing to sell everything from K-12 products to coding courses. It’s not just edtech, of course — fear is a motivator in other areas too, something that insurance companies base their business models on and used by smartphone companies to sell iterative upgrades at several hundred dollars more. 

The fear of not being ready for the future — aka the fear of missing out or FOMO  — is only one half of the marketing strategy. 

Combine this with aspirational outcomes such as getting a job at Google with an INR 150 Cr pay package or becoming a tech CEO like Sundar Pichai, the fear campaigns hit the heart and tap into the psyche of the average Indian parent.

Beyond platforms focussing on coding for kids, these messages are regularly popping up for other categories of edtech products too. For instance, Clever Harvey has launched a 10-day Junior MBA program for teenagers and Unacademy-owned Mastree promises to transform school kids into TED Talk speakers and podcast hosts. 

“A good proof of the pudding lies in the patents filed by our students in the last 6 months of the program’s existence and more than 20 viable business models becoming commercially functional,” Sriram Subramanian, cofounder and CEO of Clever Harvey, claimed in response to our questions about whether some claims are indeed too tall. 

He added that this is not a marketing ploy but a philosophy that the company lives by. According to Subramanian, “It is a value system of being future-ready for an increasingly uncertain world that we want to inculcate in every child growing up in these times.”

While there is no harm in educating and exposing kids to potential career paths such as management, architecture and entrepreneurship — crafting a marketing campaign that claims teens will become successful business leaders because of a 10-day program is hard to digest, even if a handful of students have seen limited success in this area. 

Edtech Through The Eyes Of Marketers 

The more eagle-eyed among you might of course recognise these marketing tactics from the days when coaching institutes used them to sell dreams of getting into IITs, or becoming an IAS officer, and the Arindam Chaudharis of the world emerged brandishing MBA degrees that weren’t worth the papers they were printed on. But there are significant departures in the case of these edtech marketing campaigns — the first being the age groups which they target.

The second point of departure is that while the outcome that an IIT or IAS coaching centre promises can be validated in a couple of years, becoming a great AI/ML coder or tech entrepreneur is too far out in the future for all kids in the age groups that most edtech platforms target. 

“In the case of coaching classes, when a student gets through a prestigious institution like IIT where pay-off is assured while the so-called ‘certificate’ provided by the tech platforms has limited value,” said Apurva Chamaria, a digital marketing expert.

The author of two books on hacking social media for growth is surprised that such edtech companies are handing out personalised visiting cards with tags such as ‘game developer’ to little kids. The idea behind this is to reduce the post-purchase dissonance or consumer dissatisfaction, according to Chamaria. 

Another distinction is the level of targeting through personalised ads that has become possible because of the enormous reach of digital platforms. Though the biggest names in IIT and IAS coaching too have these resources available, most players still go with hoardings and ads on TV and print media with testimonials being preferred instead of aspiration-based selling. 

Shreesh Shankar, creative and strategy head at Sukkrish Aadds, a Bengaluru-based marketing agency, said “The level of sophistication has certainly increased especially in targeting strategies with digital taking a considerable share in the advertising budgets for companies. Having said that, brands have to be prepared to take the flak.”

After a social media furore over using images and quotes of Sundar Pichai and Bill Gates in ad campaigns, WhiteHat Jr has removed those slides from its website and social media pages. 

Apart from the ethical concern of the names and images of high-profile personalities without their consent, trying to reduce their success in life to simply coding alone is reductive. 

Karthik Srinivasan, a communications consultant who earlier worked at companies like Ogilvy and Flipkart, added, ”To promise to parents that it is coding that opens the path to Gates-level or Pichai-level success is absurd and ignores everything else those stalwarts have done in life.”

The Future Of Coding Jobs 

In our conversations with multiple parents who have enrolled their kids in WhiteHat Jr classes, the common point of motivation was the aspirational appeal of a computer science career. “We found the visual and advertising very attractive,” said a parent of an 8-year-old from Delhi NCR, however, they discontinued the course after three classes because the child didn’t take much interest in it and was more inclined towards activities like drawing and singing. 

The second major motivation for parents was the extra time available during the pandemic and the lack of outdoor or physical activities for kids. Amri Saxena, the mother of an eight-year-old enrolled in WhiteHat Jr’s coding classes shared that she and her husband do not work in the IT industry, but they still have to use computers in their everyday job, and sometimes they struggle at it. She believes that coding will be a necessary skill to handle the career of the future, irrespective of which career her kid chooses to pursue. 

However, Thomas J. John, a senior counsellor at digital career counselling platform iDreamCareer and also a trainer, disagreed with the notion that if a child does not know how to code, they will not make anywhere in life. 

“What they are not telling kids is that after a point of time even coding will be automated. I think these marketing campaigns are addressing something that was perhaps a boon, maybe, 15 years ago but it is being taught as the next big thing —  I don’t think that’s the truth,” he added.

John’s argument about automation won’t be a surprise to anyone following the latest AI developments. The recent launch of Open AI’s language model GPT-3 — featured on The Outline a few weeks ago — had even shown programmers a glimpse of AI capabilities. GPT-3 API was actually able to generate code and this had raised many concerns about the impact of GPT-3 and future generations of the technology taking away real jobs.  

In such a world, where technologies are able to replicate any skill that is based on a set of rules and follow a set pattern — the real differentiation will come from human-only skills like empathy, creativity, team spirit, effective communication — skills that cannot be replicated by machines. founder and serial entrepreneur Pallav Nadhani, who learnt how to code at age 10, believes that though programming will be an important skill set going forward, it is not right to think that it will become a part of everyone’s job description. He illustrated this with the example of spreadsheet software — it’s commonly used, but only a few need to be experts at it. 

The Parent Trap

“Every parent is thinking my kid is the best, my kid is so good at it. This is how they are capturing a parent’s imagination and gaining more customers. I’m not against teaching coding to kids but I’m against the showbiz that the companies are creating about it,” said Dr. Surbhi Goyal, a psychologist based in Kota, which is known as the IIT coaching centre capital of India.

When companies tell parents that their kid is among top 5 out of the thousand students and has excellent IQ, it pushes parents to believe that their kid is the best and they need to do everything in their power to help them build a career in programming. 

In such a situation the role of a parent becomes equally important to objectively assess the interest level of their students and only continue with the classes if their kid shows continued interest in the coding courses. 

While some older kids might have the agency to express their disinterest in coding classes, most six-year-olds don’t have that amount of cognisance about their surroundings. Dr. Geeta Nahari, a psychologist based in Bhopal, noted that students under eight are too young to say no to their parents and if parents force them into these courses irrespective of their interest levels, they might become irritable and angry. 

Going Beyond Building Blocks

While their marketing strategies are questionable, one also cannot discredit the value that these coding courses bring to young students who do have an aptitude for coding. For such students, block-based coding could be a great entry point into the world of computer programming. 

“Starting from the drag-and-drop interface of Scratch to the verbose Java language and the ultra-powerful conversational tone of Swift and Kotlin, there are as many starting points on this wonderful journey of computer programming as there are personalities among us,” said Rajendran Dandapani, director of technology at SaaS giant Zoho.

Block-based coding includes creating a logical sequence of blocks by dragging and dropping a set of functions. While this allows students to make basic games and applications and provides a good entry point to the coding universe, this does not equip them with the employable skill sets at the current stage. 

Distinguished fellow and professor at Silicon Valley’s Carnegie Mellon University Engineering, Vivek Wadhwa believes that there should not really be much focus on learning the programming language syntax, because in the future, coding is going to change fundamentally and become much more visual. 

Wadhwa shared about an experiment that he had conducted with a group of poor kids in Silicon Valley. On day one, kids were asked if they believe they could become like Mark Zuckerberg but none of them raised their hands. Then, Wadhwa and his team took those kids through a block based programming module. Post which, a majority of kids felt confident in saying that they can become innovators like Mark Zuckerberg. Wadhwa is also a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School, Labor and Worklife Program.

However, he agreed that block-based programming is not really coding but it provides exposure to technologies. Edtech companies have built businesses by positioning block-based coding courses as something that can help students build market-ready applications and get employed at big tech companies. But the reality is far from it. 

“If any edtech company promises a job in a product company like Google or Microsoft then that’s just a marketing strategy. Let’s say somebody wants to become a doctor in the future, then of course, you can’t tell them at the age of six that you can cut a frog. You can only tell them what scissors are and what other things are,” said Akashdeep Nain, a software engineer, at Google India. 

Shashank Kumar, cofounder and the technology lead at Razorpay, also believes that it helps to start coding early and that a majority of tech entrepreneurs today would have started coding in childhood. But being a tech entrepreneur is a very generalist role and demands much more than just coding know-how, he added. 

All this means parents might develop a false notion that their kids are passionate about coding just because they excelled at one block-based coding course. That is a bigger challenge for us as career counsellors, added iDreamCareer cofounder Ayush Bansal. 

The Piper Makes Money

While there are certainly a lot of questions about WhiteHat Jr’s marketing campaigns, one simply cannot ignore the fact that it has become a revenue machine. According to founder and CEO Karan Bajaj, the startup’s pre-Covid revenue level of INR 14-15 Cr per month doubled every 30 days leading up to its acquisition by BYJU’S in August

The $300 Mn exit was not only the biggest edtech exit in India but also a rare occurrence for the country’s ecosystem — for which companies have often blamed IPO regulations. BYJU’S founder and CEO Byju Raveendran has also recently said that his company was quite clear about going for a public offer, but was yet to decide on the time frame.

Things have started to change as the government has reportedly done away with the dual listing clause that required Indian startups and companies to list on domestic bourses as well, in case they chose to list in an overseas stock exchange. The new policy is expected to be finalised in the next two weeks, allowing domestic firms to list their shares in the UK, Canada, Switzerland and the US. 

On the back of the WhiteHat acquisition, BYJU’s has consolidated its reach to kids’ study rooms while also keeping costs in control. According to an Inc42 Plus report, the edtech unicorn has emerged as the most frugal edtech startup in FY19 as it expanded its revenue by $123 Mn in FY19 whereas expenses grew $116 Mn.

Who’s Paying The Piper?

Though coding edtech startups are attracting a lot of attention lately, the entire sector has been on an upswing amid the pandemic with schools shutting and children being restricted to their homes. According to an Inc42 Plus report published on October 8, this momentum for edtech adoption in India would drive up the market size 3.7x in the next five years, from $2.8 Bn (2020) to $10.4 Bn (2025).

For this reason, VCs are lining up outside the doors of edtech companies as the funding in the sector has grown at a CAGR of 47% between 2015 and 2019. Though a large share of this growth is accounted for by Byju’s, The Future Of Edtech In India: Decoding The $10 Bn Market Opportunity report, powered by Zendesk, found that deal flow has been quite robust with 194 funding events. 

Among the edtech sub-sectors, K-12 education startups with $4.3 Bn in total market size will have the single highest market share — 41% of the total edtech market in India. Besides K-12 education, for kids and younger students, coding is the next frontier as a slew of startups are looking to gain headway in this segment — even if through fear.

We want to end with a note on the responsibility of edtech platforms towards parents and kids. When a product is used by millions, the impact of fear in the messaging is a lot more visible and could get concerning. The recent acknowledgment by WhiteHat Jr. CEO Bajaj that the company is working on improving its marketing campaigns after public feedback is definitely a step forward. But a promise is only as good as the plan of execution, we hope there will soon be an answer to this. 

Until next week,

Yatti Soni & Deepsekhar Choudhury