Byju’s promises “fun learning”, but could it use some unlearning?

Byju Raveendran positions a worksheet in front of a propped-up tablet. Perched on top of the gadget is a small, red plastic “reader” resembling a camera.

Almost immediately, the reader captures the image of the worksheet and replicates it on the tab’s screen. Every tick mark or a cross made on paper is recorded digitally and the correct answers revealed in a friendly, cartoonish voice.

Educational Games Platform

This is Osmo at work, a physical-to-digital educational games platform, and the newest member of edtech giant Byju’s carousel of “fun-learning” tools. Byju’s recently acquired this Palo Alto-based edtech startup for a cool $120 million to target primary school students who learn better from physical textbooks and worksheets.

With this acquisition, claims founder Byju Raveendran, Byju’s can enhance the students’ offline learning experience by connecting their content to Osmo’s repository of offline-to-online games. Osmo’s reader, currently priced at $100, will soon be part of Byju’s subscription pack—a tablet and SD card loaded with video lessons—already Rs 25,000 ($360) a pop. This hasn’t deterred over 2 million subscribers from signing up.

Byju’s, Raveendran’s eponymously named maiden venture, is the newest member of India’s unicorn club—joining the likes of OYO, Ola and Paytm*—and is valued at $3.6 billion as of 2018. According to data sourced from Tofler, Byju’s posted revenues of Rs 490 crore ($71 million) for the year ended March 2018 (and has projected a 270% jump in the current financial year to Rs 1400 crore ($202 million)). Byju’s also posted a net loss of Rs 28.7 crore ($4.1 million) for the same financial year.

Launch of the application

Launched initially as a network of coaching centers in 2011, Byju’s has, in less than a decade, become the hottest real estate in the $1.96-billion Indian edtech market. Since the launch of its app in 2015, Byju’s has received both international investment and national recognition: the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative’s first Asian investment, Harvard’s written a case study about the company, and more locally, an endorsement by Shah Rukh Khan, which has unlocked access to a whole new buying demographic.

With its multi-product play—learning app, coaching centers, and now, Osmo—Byju’s is gearing up for a global launch in late 2019.

Amidst much hype, it seems like there’s nothing that can burst its VC-funded bubble.

Except for real and long-term value.

“Byju’s videos are superior to Toppr’s (a rival edtech company) in terms of their content and explanations. But can students really learn from just watching a video?” asks an ex-Byju’s salesperson, who spoke to The Ken on condition of anonymity. Having sold over 200 of these subscriptions, he’s not convinced.

A damning question that’s loosened a flood of criticism online. On public chatrooms, WhatsApp and Facebook groups, where irate parents are now demanding a refund for their subscription fees. Self-study from an app, they realize, may not work for every child. But deeper still is the crisis of how the content is taught.

Underneath the slick editing and 3D visuals, claim education experts, sits the tired and tested DNA of exam prep coaching. An emulation of the Korean or Chinese model of learning—getting to perfection through incessant test-taking. The other inspiration for Byju’s seems to be the Finnish, who tops the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings every year and focuses on learning through exploration.

Is the muddled middle ground helping Byju’s cause? That’s a question worth exploring.

Behind the green screen

It’s a busy Sunday at the Byju’s office. Dressed in his signature black t-shirt and jeans, Raveendran cuts a purposeful figure as he explains why Byju’s online teaching methods work. Outside the sun-lit conference room is a frenzied, cubicle-filled floor of Byju’s sales representatives and 400+counsellors who work on Sundays, because that’s when most users call.

The helpline is a mere addendum to the central product: well-crafted, engaging videos that are supposed to break down complex concepts into easy, digestible bits. The videos are shot in front of a green screen and then superimposed with eye-catching visuals.