Rajesh Bysani, Chief Product Officer, Brainly

In his role as the CPO of Brainly, Rajesh Bysani is responsible for driving the team to build world-class products in line with the company’s vision of becoming a leading global educational platform. Prior to joining Brainly, Rajesh had a rich professional experience of over 15 years, working with both established and emerging companies across diverse profiles. He was the Mobile Transformation Lead at Google, CPO at Zoomcar, AVP (Product and Growth) at FreeCharge, and a core part of early product teams at redBus and BookMyShow. Throughout his prolific career, he has been tasked with ideating, executing, and growing some of the most innovative and path-breaking products that have simplified and enriched the lives of millions of people.

 

What are the significant challenges in the school educational system today? How can the latest technologies solve them?

In a traditional classroom, the average strength of students is about 50-60 students per teacher. This disproportionate ratio limits the scope when it comes to the delivery of personalized attention and learning. At best, a teacher can afford to personally attend to 15 or 20 students who stand out – and this is a liberal estimate – along with a few students who fall on the opposite end of the competency spectrum. This is not a reflection on the teacher’s will or sincerity nor on the student’s commitment to learning. The truth is, and every teacher recognizes this, that the needs, sensibilities, level of understanding, and pace of learning are different for every student. However, it is humanly impossible for one teacher to identify the competencies and weaknesses of each student in the classroom and teach in a manner that takes care of every student’s individual learning requirements. Consequently, the curriculum is conventionally designed keeping the average in mind, which overlooks the issues, interests, and challenges of individual learners. Teachers are required to bridge this gap on their own. Fortunately, technology is slowly changing this dynamic for the better.

A combination of cutting-edge technologies including AI, machine learning, and data analytics is optimizing education delivery at scale. The idea is not to replace the teacher – this is a misconception. The idea is to empower the teacher by shifting the onus of carrying out complicated analyses of each student’s individual learning needs to a tech-driven platform. Teachers can then leverage the data-mined insights to create personalized learning modules that allow for the delivery of individual attention that each student deserves. The same tech framework can help educators achieve this optimally in a remarkably short time, something that would not be possible if done manually.

Another significant challenge in India’s education system stems from the set of objectives that guides everything from the creation of curricula at an administrative level to the delivery of knowledge inside the classroom. Currently, the system is grade-oriented, with the objectives of schooling defined by how well a student can retain and regurgitate information on tests. As a result, young learners are struggling in an intense, high-stress environment which, as is generally recognized, is not conducive to learning. By way of solution, a structural overhaul is popularly expressed as the remedy for this pain point. However, redefining the objectives and optimizing existing processes with technology can help educators and policymakers accomplish the same and much more. A tech-led framework can help educators create learning modules that prioritize a student’s aptitude and interests while giving them the flexibility to explore possible career avenues both within and beyond their interest areas. The flexibility of exploration and a wide exposure is necessary as it is natural for a student to have their interests and focus evolve with time, the more they learn about the world. Technology can help schools to not just encourage and support a student during their years of exploration, but also be the crucible where students can gain the necessary knowledge base and skills required to excel in their preferred domain. 

Finally, the pandemic-led shift to online learning has served to limit the access to knowledge for people without mobile devices and internet facilities. The divide between the haves and have-nots was already present; the viral outbreak has merely accentuated it. At the same time, the advent of the internet has shown the way forward when it comes to democratizing access to education for all. Going forward, the challenge will be to integrate advanced technologies into educational processes to optimize them while improving access to education across all regions and for all sections of society. The idea is to enable every Indian student to access holistic learning that makes them socially, culturally, and politically aware while teaching them important life skills besides and beyond the conventional curricula. No tech can replace social interactions and, therefore, traditional schooling. However, a tech-enabled pedagogy is a way forward.

The pandemic has brought online learning providers into the spotlight. How is Brainly responding to it?

Brainly is primarily a free-of-cost assistance tool that supports students and their parents in their learning journey by complementing what they learn in school. With this resource at their disposal, students can get clarity and guidance on difficult problems, research topics in and beyond their syllabus across subjects, practice for exams, and access a variety of engaging educational content including essays and videos. What sets Brainly apart is that besides providing step-by-step guidance to complex problems with the help of subject experts, the platform also enables peer-to-peer discussions, knowledge-sharing, and feedback. 

Recently, we rolled out Brainly Math Solver to assist students with finding step-by-step guidance on complex mathematical problems. Sometimes, the absence of on-the-spot help causes students to lose interest or become demotivated. With Brainly Math Solver, users simply need to scan the picture of the problem or manually type it on the device’s touchscreen to access instant, step-by-step explanation, often accompanied by graphical/visual representations for better comprehension.

In the post-pandemic landscape, using online learning tools has become second nature for many students. Why? Because they are already using digital tools and mobile phones to attend their classes. All they need to do to satisfy their curiosity or seek assistance with their homework is to open another app or another tab on the browser. This instant access to learning aid was not possible in the pre-2020 era because, in a physical classroom setting, students were not allowed to carry personal digital devices with them.

There is no denying that many more students than ever before have come online during and after the lockdowns to study than merely for recreational purposes. Not just students but also parents and teachers are now recognizing the benefits that online learning tools have to offer. Therefore, even after the schools reopen, students will continue to use the resources and tools they are using today for self-study outside of the classroom.

Do you think Indian parents and students still have certain misconceptions about online learning programs? What is your advice to them?

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that many Indian parents became aware of edtech offerings only after, and because of the pandemic-induced shift to online learning. The post-pandemic schooling experience has been new for students, true, but being digital natives, young learners were able to adapt to the disruption without psychological friction. Many parents, on the other hand, completed their schooling at a time when neither the internet nor digital tools had yet come into existence or were not integrated with the education system. For them, it is only natural to be skeptical and concerned about their wards’ learning journeys. The concerns that parents across the country have are not the same everywhere, although some concerns are more common than others. It depends on how well the parents are attuned to the growing digitization and how deeply they are engaged in their child’s schooling.

Let’s say the parent is convinced and they have bought software or a tool. The concern then becomes, “Hey, is my child actually using the product? How much are they progressing? What does their progress look like? Are children learning in a safe virtual environment?” Such questions come up regarding the adoption of edtech tools because while growing up, the internet or mobile phones were not seen as tools that could be used for accessing education. Conventionally, mobile phones have been the tools that children would borrow to play video games or to watch videos online. This notion leads parents who are not quite familiar with digital technology to wonder whether their child is actually learning or simply spending their time on the internet.

It’s worth noting that, during the pandemic, parents have come to assume a triple role. Besides serving as caregivers and managing their professional responsibilities, they have had to also play the role of the teacher. Owing to their tight working schedules, parents may not always be able to make time to attend to their children’s questions. And when they do have the time, many parents themselves use the internet to offer adequate answers. This is how several parents have stumbled upon services like Brainly. A lot of them explored these new mediums of learning and their concerns were addressed. Their first-hand experience at parenting as well as using online tools makes such parents the perfect candidates to espouse the benefits of online learning tools. They are also better equipped to alleviate the concerns of the parents who are skeptical about or unfamiliar with digital technology.

Beyond the hesitancy to adopt online learning tools, the second, more common, concern involves value delivery. Some of the questions that come up, in this case, include “Will this add value to my child’s learning journey?”, “Is it aligned with the educational goals I have for my children or the child has for themselves?”, “Is it worth the money I am spending?”, and so on. These are valid concerns and I believe it is crucial to address them so that parents have the necessary peace of mind when it comes to their wards’ education. 

My advice to parents, then, is simple. Engage with your wards and understand the individual requirements that they are addressing by using online tools. Different children have different objectives. Some may be preparing for entrance exams. Some may be looking to switch streams. Others may just be accessing these tools for self-development. Sometimes, a student may be using online resources for assistance in only one or two subjects in which they struggle. Maybe they have a doubt they want to be resolved or maybe they simply want to learn more about a subject, beyond what is prescribed in their syllabus. In all of these cases, parents can ask themselves whether online resources are helping their children to become better.

What are some of the most innovative technologies in online learning right now? What are the key trends of e-learning to follow in 2021?

Leading edtech companies the world over are leveraging AI and allied technologies to deliver innovative services. AI, machine learning, and powerful analytics are unlocking swifter, more personalized, and accurate capabilities, enabling educators to drive optimization at every step of the education value chain. Data-mined insights, for instance, are informing the creation and structuring of curricula that best aligns with not just the students’ learning requirements but also with the latest developments in the industry and the larger jobs landscape. New technologies are also helping educators to identify the areas where a student may be struggling and then create a personalized journey flow-optimized by structured delivery of multimedia content and instruction to deliver optimal results. 

Studies show that multimedia instruction – a pedagogy that combines audio/visual content and kinesthetic instruction – delivers the most favorable learning outcomes. Therefore, the future of the educational ecosystem seems headed that way with scientific firm-footedness. Some edtech companies are also experimenting with interactive content enabled by AR/VR technology. This innovation will prove beneficial in the post-pandemic setting where remote learning will continue to be a mainstay even after schools and colleges re-open their physical spaces. Against this backdrop, edtech offerings will continue to support accelerated advances towards a future where not just school- and college-goers but everybody has 24/7, on-demand access to online learning assistance and resources.

Post-COVID-19, what are the opportunities Brainly sees in the Indian education market?

The pandemic threw the existing fault lines in India’s education system into sharper relief. Technology’s role, as I see it, is to bridge these need-gaps to enable more efficient functioning of educational institutions. Tech-led learning platforms are not here to replace the traditional educational system but to complement it. Students have already been using the internet for assistance with their homework or to access explanatory content of difficult topics in their curriculum. However, not many resources are available that can assist them when they get stuck on a particular geometry problem or an SAT teaser. Students are aware of what they like about their school, which subjects they feel most comfortable with and which they struggle with, and what kind of help they need to accelerate their learning journey. Parents are also typically aware of the educational requirements of their wards. These are the opportunities and need-gaps that we are addressing in the market: offering a 24/7, free-of-cost self-help platform that connects students with like-minded individuals, senior peers, and subject experts. On Brainly, students can pick the brains of geniuses, receive guidance, satisfy their curiosity, and multiply their minds. Moving forward, we will continue to offer improved services and products that meet the specific requirements of the modern Indian student.

What would be the future of the online learning market from now? What is some advice that you have for startups that are emerging in this space?

While online learning has been going increasingly mainstream over the last decade or so, 2020 accelerated its adoption and established it as an essential component of the new-age learning experience. With schools, colleges, and universities shut down to halt the spread of the pandemic, digital learning tools stepped in to bridge the sudden and massive gap in students’ lives. More importantly, over the past 18-odd months, online learning has made a strong case for complementing and optimizing traditional pedagogical models.

 Look at what online learning brings to the table. As long as they have digital devices and adequate internet connectivity, students can access content, courses, and expert guidance, as well as to conduct peer-to-peer discussions, at any time, from anywhere. This level of remote enablement at a mass scale, until a few years ago, was only talked about in the hypothetical. Online learning platforms also have robust support systems in place for all stakeholders in the value chain, be it students, parents, or teachers, with multiple resources and tools that help them to participate more productively in the learning experience. It has facilitated a more seamless intersection across different spheres of learning – the home, the school, and peer-based interactions – for more optimal and engaged learning. 

It is little wonder that the global online learning ecosystem crossed a market valuation of $250 billion in 2020 and is expected to register a CAGR of 21% over the next six years. The growth reflects in the number of M&As and institutional investments within the sector, as well as the rapid globalization and expansion. Online learning start-ups in India alone have secured more than $4 billion in private equity funding in the last five years.

However, tapping into the market opportunity, even as the competition in the space increases, will require emerging online learning companies to build products that cater to a specific niche. They must focus on addressing the concerns that have been overlooked by the more established players and build solutions for unique local problems. Doing so not can only help them carve out their distinctive space in the market but also unlock opportunities to undertake rapid expansion and globalization by adapting the product for different regional needs.

The next wave of entrepreneurs in this space may also need to move beyond core education and focus on learning that adds unique value to the user. Take, for instance, financial literacy. Every adult is supposed to know how to manage their finances but, apart from a handful of people, most do not have the tools or knowledge needed to maximize the value of their capital. Why? Because it is not taught as a course in a school or a college. The same holds true for many other essential soft skills and life skills. This is a major need-gap that will soon require solutions.

And they need technology to solve these challenges. By streamlining and optimizing the course discovery and selection process for the end-user, technologies such as AI, machine learning, and data analytics have already become non-negotiable in the online learning landscape. Emerging technologies such as AR/VR are also finding applications as live, instructor-led learning modules become more popular. The projected mass deployment of 5G technologies will also address several bandwidth-related issues that currently hinder the seamless delivery of online learning. The future, in short, looks extremely promising for the sector.

What is your advice to the students and their parents who are looking for an online learning platform?   

Before answering, I feel it is important to understand the true meaning of education – a word that derives from the Latin educatum, which means “to lead out”. In essence, education is all about a guided exploration of knowledge to draw out the inherent talent within an individual.

However, choosing the right platform to discover and hone this talent can represent a major challenge for students and their parents. With a literal plethora of digital platforms and services available today, making a choice can, sometimes, be overwhelming. What further complicates the matter is that each individual’s learning journey is unique, so what worked well for someone else may not necessarily suit your specific learning needs in the most optimal manner.

This is why, before choosing an online learning platform, it is essential to define the objectives of learning by adopting a First Principles approach. Start off by asking what you want to learn, why you want to learn it, and how you would ideally want this learning to take place. Answering these questions allows you to identify the where of learning by zeroing in on the platform that is most suited to your needs.

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