With the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 and the subsequent struggle to cope with the new normal, the world of education was transformed — pushing all stakeholders to go digital as the traditional brick-and-mortar institutions remained shut for an extended period. Realising the need for change in the wake of the pandemic, schools and colleges quickly hopped on the digital bandwagon and started hosting online classes.
However, adapting to a tech-enabled platform and retaining the quality of learning in a virtual environment are trickier than they sound, especially when it comes to engaging early learners, children under the age of six.
While most edtech brands face the challenge of engagement and retention — especially as the number of options in the market has skyrocketed — the challenge increases multifold when dealing with early learners.
It is not difficult to understand why innovation is the watchword here. Young children in this age group are curious and creative, rather than sticking to book learning or a cut-and-dried curriculum they prefer trying out interactive formats. Developing learning programmes that interest and engage them in a digital environment often becomes a challenging feat. More importantly, both kids and their parents should engage on the platform for the best possible learning outcome.
“Kids of this age group develop very quickly. They are thinking all the time and solving problems in their day-to-day life. On the other hand, they just want to play. So, the biggest challenge is how we connect all these with the right methods, the right format, and keep it visually engaging while staying connected with real-world applications,” explained Sankar N Krishna, VP, product development, at BYJU’S.
The eponymous edtech behemoth that started its journey as an offline student tutoring centre before foraying into the online education space, has emerged as one of India’s most valued companies. In 2021, the startup made it to 35 global elite unicorns with valuations of more than $10 Bn. According to CB Insights, it was the 13th largest unicorn globally by December 2021. And with the latest funding round, the valuation of the company has reached $22 Bn, the startup told Inc42.
Keen to develop the foundational skills of early learners across India, the startup currently offers Maths and English programmes for LKG (Lower Kindergarten) and UKG (Upper Kindergarten) and Maths, English and Science for class 1-3 students on its app through video lessons, worksheets, and interactive quizzes. Its tech innovation and acquisition of companies such as Osmo, a Palo Alto-based maker of educational games, are also helping the company in its effort to build its early learning platform.
Decoding BYJU’S Offerings For Early Learners
Talking about the core elements of BYJU’S early learners’ platform, Sriram Ganesh, who leads this product category, said that engagement is a key lever to drive outcomes, as is having a strong curriculum.
“Once you build that curriculum, the next steps from there are iterative processes – how to make it engaging, attractive and easy for our young learners,” he added.
Considering that the participants are at different levels of learning and have different learning needs, tracking the key engagement and outcome metrics helps the company evaluate whether it is providing the right content for a particular learner and whether the content is engaging enough for the child to complete the lesson.
Stressing the importance of this approach, Ganesh said, “If a child is at 80% proficiency level in a particular concept, then it becomes both challenging and achievable to build engagement. If you make it too easy, the student loses interest as it is extremely simple. If you make it too challenging, the student loses confidence and has no motivation to complete it.”
Motivating And Engaging Early Learners
“If you look at how the product speaks to you, be it the characters, the content or the in app messages, you will see that we are essentially the cheerleaders to the children when they attempt to learn. We are never negative or make them feel that they are (lagging) behind. We just try to build the motivation factor and help kids do better,” said product lead, Sriram Ganesh.
To help learners stay motivated, the platform gives badges/rewards (in the form of stickers and the like) when a child completes a task or a lesson.
Another part of this exercise is the character Jane, a proprietary IP (intellectual property) created by the BYJU’S creative team, who engages with students as soon as they begin solving worksheets.
“Jane has been very well received. While the child is going through the various exercises, Jane is always there, clapping, cheering and motivating them to do better. And think about it, who wouldn’t want some cheering when solving a problem,” said Ganesh.
All the characters in the platform including Jane have been developed using real voice recordings, and this lifelike animation walks through the journey with the kids. “She is not a know-it-all but a companion of your learning journey,” he added.
The platform also allows children to choose the most engaging learning format. Some prefer songs; some prefer stories or other formats like worksheets, and more characters are introduced to enhance this experience as the student’s progress.
Motivating And Engaging The Parents
Next comes the final part of the product – communicating the programme’s effectiveness to parents. The platform uses WhatsApp, email and in-app communication to keep parents up to date on their child’s progress in a regular and meaningful manner.
Especially in classes such as LKG, the approach is to communicate the learning outcome and extend the activities to parents. For instance, if a child learns to count from one to ten, the platform comes up with some fun activities for the parents to do with their kids in the real world to reinforce these concepts. This enhances the kid’s overall growth and helps parents become part of the learning journey.
“This sort of communication enables parents to see the tangible outcomes of the programme and the product’s scope in its entirety,” explained Ganesh.
Osmo’s Role In BYJU’S Engagement With Kids
BYJU’S acquired Osmo in 2019 to expand its learning solutions to kids aged three to eight. Through Osmo’s integration in its product and offerings, BYJU’S provides kits with interactive worksheets. For instance, one of the kits comes with sticks and rings of various shapes and sizes for the kids to put together and resemble to make the items and words they see on a tablet with video instructions. The system is connected to an Osmo scanner, which scans students’ answers on digitally enabled worksheets and provides quick feedback.
This product allows the platform to provide real-time feedback and hands-on practice on digitally enabled worksheets that recognise students’ handwriting. Powered by a unique suggestion engine, the app adapts to each child’s distinct interests and learning habits and stimulates their curiosity and imagination accordingly.
What The Future Holds
India is home to more than 1.5 Mn schools, about 9.7 Mn instructors and 265 Mn+ students from pre-primary to higher secondary levels. Understandably, the country’s education system is one of the world’s largest, second only to China. However, according to a government report, in 2021 the dropout rate at the secondary school level was as high as 17%, while that in upper-primary (VI to VIII) and primary level stood at 1.8% and 1.5%, triggered by the Covid-induced temporary school closures.
It was the time when edtech players like BYJU’S stepped in to address a critical issue, the involuntary loss of schooling and rising learning gaps. In 2021, edtech startups raised $4.7 Bn across 165 deals, while India boasts more than 3,000 startups catering to its current and future needs. The Indian government is also committed to building edtech with initiatives like the PM eVIDYA in place.
Talking about the road ahead, Sankar N Krishna, BYJU’S product development vice-president, said the future would be all about introducing more subjects and developing curricula around them. According to him, once you figure out the core offering, the programme and the curriculum, what follows is working on more subjects and expanding that offering.
The startup also aims to create an overarching learning system and has made several acquisitions for this purpose. “We have been acquiring and bringing all entrepreneurs and creative forces together for a very simple reason. We will create something much larger, an ecosystem,” said Krishna.
The goal is to synergise what everyone offers, maximise it and create more meaningful experiences and learning outcomes. “Currently, we are experimenting with subjects and integrating different formats across the subjects we already have. All our acquisitions, such as Osmo, Epic and Tynker, play a major role in BYJU’S core offering and app. They will also help us build our interactions and enhance customer experience,” he added.