“What helps people, helps business.”- Leo Burnett.

Nothing could be more true about online education space. It has opened the frontiers of education far and wide to make education more accessible and hassle free to consumers right from the privacy of their homes. High quality content, live interactions with academicians, student to student interactions via video, have now made best possible learning resources from across the world accessible to people at extremely affordable prices. The global online learning market is expected to reach $107 Bn this year, with the Indian education market being poised to grow $40 Bn by 2017.

The rising popularity of this medium can be gauged with the increasing number of startups entering this space to make it more personalised, interactive, and organized as it happens to be an extremely fragmented space in India. From test prep startups such as Toppr, Embibe, Plancess and to e-learning startups such as Edukart, Simplilearn, Englishleap.com, Purple Squirrel Eduventures, among many others, the ecosystem is brimming with startups who are trying to disrupt the online education space.

One of these contenders is media industry veteran and serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala. In January this year, Ronnie announced his plans to launch an online company focused on higher education, called U Education. Speaking about this new venture, Screwvala had stated, “We are looking to disrupt this whole space and that will happen only when there is scale and size. The biggest challenge right now is the lack of credibility attached to online learning and also employment generation post degrees. We will look to address these.”

Today, in its bid to make online learning more interactive and non-anonymous, UpGrad, has launched its first course on entrepreneurship. The 15 week program received 1,600 applications, out of which 500 have been shortlisted. The course is priced at $754 (INR 50k) and about 100 of these participants have prepaid the course amount. The first three weeks of the course are being offered for free, thus interested applicants from the remaining 400 will have an option of paying the amount after the end of three weeks.

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Mayank Kumar, CEO of UpGrad, stated, “All of us are a product of offline education, so the challenge for us was how to design it in a way so that it looks like what education would have been if it was not delivered offline.  Hence, we aimed at designing a personalised experience, full with peer-to-peer learning, interactive and engaging content, and teaching and non-teaching assistance ingrained in the program.

The UpGrad team set forth to design the course in such a way that the participant feels he is in a virtual classroom. The course module has been designed to engage the reader completely. It has a faculty member elucidating on concepts, followed by an entrepreneur sharing his experience, the application of those concepts through visual studies, followed by quizzes, group submissions & assignments.

Going forward from next year, UpGrad will offer data analytics, angel investing, digital marketing and product management courses. Some of the future programs will also be certificate programs. The programs will be upgraded every year. The startup is also building an android app to offer the next batch of courses on the mobile platform.

Speaking about the challenges in online education in India, Ronnie stated, “Affordability becomes a challenge at the more premium, private stage of education in India. More so, in our country, due to socio-economic reasons, people start working at an early age and even if they can afford higher education the course, they don’t because they are already working. Hence, the benefit of online education, which allows them to work and upgrade themselves at the same time.”

UpGrad aims to bridge this gap and will offer courses in the post-graduation/specialisation space, where Ronnie feels it can make a maximum contribution. The startup is targeting working professionals, with earning capacity between $12k-$18k (INR 8-12 lakhs), though students fresh out of college are also free to apply.

As per Ronnie, online education has a huge potential to make a difference to the education space in India. While he doesn’t play down the role of a brick and mortar model method of expansion, however, he feels in parallel, online education also needs to be accelerated. Citing the lower number of teaching faculty at higher levels and inconsistencies in teaching standards, he says that online education has the potential to attract the best faculty without eliciting their physical presence. This will allow the same faculty to make a larger impact in the education vertical.

Says Ronnie, “We constantly need to upgrade ourselves. It is an on-going process as in today’s world, what you learn at 21 is not going to be valid when you are 40. And this is the thought process at UpGrad. We want to create multiple options for people at different stages of their career growth.”

However, he acknowledges that UpGrad will have to face strong psychological barriers in its quest to be a pioneer in the online education space. While the field is still a level playing field, given the fact that India is not 30-40 years behind the US in this unconventional technology online education space, however, it is still a challenging domain. The biggest challenge to be overcome is the psychological barrier where most people think that to study, they have to go to an institution. To provide the same interaction, networking and teaching support as provided by offline education is not an easy task.

Also, worldwide, the completion rates of online courses even in countries such as the US, is not more than 10-15%. While it is difficult for people to dropout from college due to social stigmas, online education being anonymous makes it easier for people to drop out, thus, affecting completion rates. Another challenge is to make people pay for an online course when the web has enabled free dissemination of information on everything.

Quick Look At the Entrepreneurship Course

The course is divided broadly into three trimesters, which will cover Idea Validation, Scaling Up and Funding & Legal aspects of entrepreneurship.

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UpGrad has enlisted about four-five faculty members and some 35 entrepreneurs, like Bhavish Aggarwal, CEO of Olacabs, Deep Kalra, founder of MakeMyTrip, Radhika Aggarwal, co-founder ShopClues and Pankaj Chaddah, co-founder Zomato, to name a few. Additionally, the course will also offer 10-12 guest lectures from partners of law firms, Venture capital firms and marketing heads of various companies. Besides this, the course will also encourage participants to meet offline by organising a few offline events.

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In order to remove the anonymity from the program and give it the feeling of a classroom course, a peer help program has been inbuilt in it, on the lines of messaging platform Quora. This will allow participants to post questions on the discussion board and elicit answers from other participants. UpGrad will also monitor these responses and discussions, and fill in the gaps wherever necessary.

Additionally, non-teaching assistance in the form of buddy support will also be provided to the participants. The buddy will not only provide reactive support such as with logins or trouble shooting, but also proactive support in order to monitor the engagement level of the participant. This would entail calling up the participants to check for reasons for drop in engagement.  The whole idea is to make online learning a more interactive and less lonely process.

Quick Facts About Applicants

Following are few quick facts about the applicants, who were subjected to a screening which involved filling an application form and writing essays. The participants belonging to 71 cities from 12 countries were chosen on the basis on their profile and subjective assessment of their commitment levels to the course.

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Besides Mayank and Ronnie, the UpGrad team consists of Ravijot Chugh, who takes care of the product and Phalgun Kompalli, who is in charge of operations. The startup, currently, has about 43 people. Early this year, it was announced that the new venture will initiate with an investment of INR 100 Cr. For now, UpGrad has not disclosed its revenue targets for this year and is solely focusing on how is the entrepreneurship course received by participants. It will be interesting to see how many people out of the remaining 400 participants will sign up for the full course once the free three-week period ends. That will be the real litmus test for UpGrad and will reveal whether the course designed is engaging enough to make people stick to completing it-one of the biggest challenges in online learning.