These millennials are reinventing the multibillion-dollar education industry during coronavirus

How the pandemic fast-tracked the multibillion-dollar education technology industry
How the pandemic fast-tracked the multibillion-dollar education technology industry

In a new series, CNBC Make It speaks to young entrepreneurs who are pivoting their businesses, or starting anew, to address some of the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked the world's largest-ever remote learning experiment.

At its peak in mid-April, the virus caused nationwide school closures in 190 countries, impacting 90% of total enrolled learners, or almost 1.6 billion people globally.

That's been a major learning curve for students, parents and educators moving their teaching online. But it's also been a boon for one of the world's fastest-growing industries: education technology. 

CNBC Make It spoke to three founders tapping into the multibillion-dollar business opportunity to learn more. 

Learning the basics

Even before the outbreak, education technology, also referred to as edtech, was growing rapidly.

From a $107 billion market in 2015, the industry is expected to triple by 2025 to be worth $350 billion, as more people look for learning resources online. Analysts predict that growth will be led in large part by Asia's growing youth population.

One person who spotted that opportunity early on is Divya Gokulnath, co-founder of the world's most valuable edtech platform, Byju's. The 33-year-old entrepreneur and her co-founder, Byju Raveendran, started the $8 billion business in India in 2011, first by providing in-person lessons to supplement school classes.

But as demand grew, the pair took their classes online in 2015 with the launch of Byju's — The Learning App, a subscription service offering short video content on core primary and secondary school curricula.

Divya Gokulnath, co-founder of Indian education technology platform Byju's/

"With technology as an enabler, you can actually take great quality content, create it in one small part of the country, to all over the world," Gokulnath told CNBC Make It. 

That rationale has proved vital under the coronavirus pandemic. Following nationwide school closures, Byju's offered students free access to its app, causing its total registered users jumping more than 25% to 50 million. 

"The 50 million is good," Gokulnath said of the company's users, which span India and the Middle East. "But what we track is actually the engagement on the app, which is now, during Covid, 100 minutes per day. And we also see an 85% renewal in our annual subscription rate."

The whole digital divide that we talk about, it's a short-term problem.
Divya Gokulnath
co-founder, Byju's

The company has also fast-tracked a number of developments — such as live classes and localized language — to support more students during the outbreak. Gokulnath said that could help close the education gap, especially for children in remote communities with poor access to high-quality teaching.

"What would be easier to do: Give them an internet connection or set up schools and give them good teachers?" said Gokulnath. "So the whole digital divide that we talk about, it's a short-term problem. And it's easier to solve using technology because technology can really solve anything at scale."

Making teaching personal

As access to the internet has grown across the globe, so too has demand for education apps.

The coronavirus has only exacerbated that. In March, when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, education app downloads worldwide surged 90% compared to the weekly average in the fourth quarter of 2019.

That's a market Timothy Yu, founder and CEO of on-demand tutoring app Snapask, is tapping into. Since launching in Hong Kong in 2015, the platform, which is worth about $200 million, has connected 3.5 million high school and college students in Asia with tutors for interactive question-and-answer sessions.

Over 10% of those users came in February and March, when 29-year-old Yu partnered with educators and local authorities to offer free support.

Timothy Yu, founder and CEO of on-demand tutoring app Snapask.

"When the outbreak happened, we could see the surge happen from the back end," said Yu. "Hong Kong definitely started first, and then we can see ... Singapore and Taiwan."

Yu's strategy has not only helped students gain personalized support in addition to their regular online classes, which he hopes will drive future demand. It has also eased the burden on teachers and provided remote work for Snapask's some 300,000 tutors. 

If we really want personalized learning to happen, we all need to be very data driven.
Timothy Yu
founder and CEO, Snapask

"A lot of schools, since the suspension ... they have been using Zoom or different types of conferencing tool. But then it's still a one to many types of teaching. To have a much better way to manage this ... Snapask can use our technology to match the students to the best tutor," said Yu.

Yu said that learning data could pave the way for a better educational experience in future — one that's tailored to students' individual needs. 

"The services that we are providing are just hitting the bare minimum to allow learning to go on," said Yu. "If we really want personalized learning to happen, we all need to be very data driven," he said, calling for more collaboration from schools and authorities.

'Upskilling' for the future

Education doesn't just end after school or college, though. In an era of increasing tech disruption, continuous learning has become ever more important to safeguard jobs for the future. 

The World Economic Forum has predicted that by 2022 over half of employees will require significant reskilling or upskilling to do their jobs — and that was before Covid-19. Now, as unemployment rates reach record highs, economists are predicting that many of those jobs may not return at all. 

That's something David Blake is addressing with Learn In, an upskilling service that helps workers learn new skills, which Blake says has a better alternative to job losses. The 36-year-old launched the business with his co-founders and $3.5 million funding in mid-April, just as U.S. unemployment claims soared.

David Blake, co-founder of upskilling service Learn In.
Learn In

"Historically it was this: Lay people off, fire people, furlough people or retain people. And we're saying there's a better way, there's a third option," said Blake. "In scenarios where you're going to have to meet payroll reductions, do so by — instead of laying people off — by putting people into low-cost, high-quality training programs."

The idea goes like this: Learn In works with employers to figure out the skills needed to future-proof their businesses, and the investment it will take. Employees are then invited to complete relevant short-training courses — either at full, reduced or no pay — with the guarantee of returning to work at the end. 

If they aren't upskilling their people now, they're going to be caught flatfooted.
David Blake
co-founder, Learn In

That's not only beneficial for employees, who may otherwise be laid off, said Blake. It's also more cost-effective for employers, who can save on rehiring when the virus subsides. Estimates suggest replacing staff can cost as much as 50%-60% of an employee's annual salary. 

"(Companies) know that if they aren't upskilling their people now, they're going to be caught flatfooted behind six months from now, 12 months from now," said Blake.

And while career breaks or learning sabbaticals are not new, Blake said the pandemic has shown that work and education no longer needs to be mutually exclusive — which could make all the difference in building a more effective workforce in the long term. 

"At every other point, there's a tension between productivity and learning. Any time you're spending over here learning, is not time you're spending on productivity," said Blake. "Companies that can be smart about using the time to upskill their people ... is always going to be a win."

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