Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Can edtech replace classroom teaching?

Few sectors, like banking and payments, can replace the physical with the digital. But there are many sectors where digital is at best a supplement. Like education, where tech tools and platforms are excellent value-adds for personalised learning but probably not a replacement for classroom teaching

Brian Carvalho
Published: Jun 20, 2022 10:14:23 AM IST
Updated: Jun 20, 2022 10:21:12 AM IST

Can edtech replace classroom teaching?

It is by now a truism that the Covid-19 pandemic speeded up the adoption of digital technologies and resulted in some far-reaching shifts in consumer behaviour. Yet, the question to be asked, as the days of lockdowns and forced work-from-home appear behind us, is how much of that shift is permanent?

The answer may not be uniform across all activities with a digital interface. For instance, digital adoption in, say, retail or finance may be more sweeping than in health. Or education. Few sectors, after all, can replace the physical with the digital. It could happen to a large extent in banking and payments, where apps can minimise visits to a bank branch or an ATM. But there are many sectors where digital is at best a supplement. Like education, where tech tools and platforms are excellent value-adds for personalised learning but can never replace classroom teaching.

The pandemic may not be over yet, but never perhaps have we been closer to business and life as usual since March 2020 than we are now. Offices are humming and schools and playgrounds are buzzing once again.  

This fortnight we have a timely package on the edtech sector, which is grasping with new twin realities: With physical learning back around the same time as funding begins to slow down for some of India’s most richly-valued companies, how does the future look? Uncertain would be a one-word answer but, as the action moves offline, those founders who foresaw a post-pandemic world and made acquisitions in the real world would be better placed. The future may well be a hybrid of classroom and digital.

On the Forbes India cover this fortnight is a maverick edtech founder who brings back memories of innovator par excellence Steve Jobs—but not for all the right reasons. Jobs was a creative genius obsessed with perfection and the clear goals he had in his head. Gaurav Munjal, founder of India’s No 2 edtech firm (in value) Unacademy, can’t be faulted for his passion and penchant for perfection. But of late, Munjal has been in the news for something Jobs wasn’t best known for: His management style. Jobs’ communication with employees was poor, he is said to have created a toxic work culture (when the word ‘toxic’ wasn’t quite in vogue) in which non-performers were instantly fired, he was supremely arrogant and didn’t like to be corrected.

The flip side is that perfectionists can’t suffer mediocrity (what is one supposed to do with non-performers?!) and are single-minded in pursuing their goal. They care little about what people say or feel, and fear little—except failure. Munjal would seem to be in that rare boat of tenacious helmsmen. As he spoke out to Rajiv Singh in a freewheeling late-evening interview at his Bengaluru office: “I fear failure a lot… I am so afraid of failing that I am in a perpetual paranoia… My arrogance in the beginning was not narcissism, it is just that we are super-passionate.”  

In the cover story, Singh dives deep into how Unacademy is changing to come to terms with more frugal times and erase the huge blots of red ink on its books. Is Munjal mellowing too? Perhaps. As he tells Singh: “I started my first company when I was 23. I am 31 now. I am getting better. I am changing.” For more on those attempts at transformation, don’t miss ‘Live Learnings’. And, for the record, Munjal says he prefers the approach of Elon Musk (a volatile visionary of a different kind) to Jobs as “he is more open about his thinking”.

Brian Carvalho
Editor, Forbes India
Twitter ID: @Brianc_Ed

(This story appears in the 01 July, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)