Do today’s e-learning platforms deserve the edtech label?

31 Mar,2022




By Ashoke Agarrwal


Ashoke Agarrwal

When Bell invented the telephone, nobody called it the coming of talk-tech.

The telephone was just an enabler of a core social and commercial function without changing the fundamental paradigm.

If anything, the technology that changed the conversational paradigm are the likes of Facebook and Twitter, with the ability to shift conversational flow from one-to-one to many-to-many. The world chose not to call it talk-tech, and the rest is an era in history – the age of social media.

The fashion of labelling second-order innovations with the appellation of “tech” is a capital markets phenomenon. Prominent examples in the current scenario are fintech and edtech, attracting oodles of angel and VC money.

Fintech, as it goes, has a level of technical depth going for it. At one end is the technology of blockchain, which Satoshi Nakomoto invented in creating Bitcoin, making blockchain an integral part of the Di-Fi (Decentralized Finance) ecosystem, which seeks to disrupt the mighty banking industry.

Many aspects of fintech – securities trading, loan evaluations – have Machine Learning at their core.

What does e-learning have in terms of first-order innovation?

Today’s e-learning systems are, at their core, clever users of the Internet’s plumbing. But unfortunately, they deliver only convenience and that too at the cost of the central tenet of education – the quality and depth of learning.

Canned videos of good teachers with clever graphics do not make for better learning outcomes. Nor does a far-away underpaid tutor (or even two!).

To my mind, the real e-learning revolution is yet to come.

The revolution will come when edtech goes deeper into the nut-and-bolts of the cognitive and psychological aspects of learning.

In the 90s and early aughts, I was involved with an e-learning start-up focused on JEE test prep. The premise of the MindAxis system was that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) learning is a function of grasping a set of fundamentals and using them correctly to solve problems. The MindAxis system, at frequent intervals, tested its student with problems that each involved the correct use of a set of fundamentals. The MindAxis algorithm identified based on the response to the test an individual’s deficiencies in understanding specific fundamentals. Subsequently, the MindAxis system sought to deliver curated teaching material to individual students to correct this deficiency. Unfortunately, MindAxis was ahead of its time, and the lack of Internet bandwidth, the cost of computing power, the collapse of the dot-com boom and the capital markets panic of 9/11 sank it.

Today Internet bandwidth and capital are plentiful. In addition, computing power is increasingly affordable and available on tap. And AI has gone mainstream. Yet, despite this, most of today’s test prep e-learning platforms are only mimicking the pedagogy of the brick-and-mortar test-prep coaching classes.

The MindAxis probe-and-correct pedagogy can go beyond STEM into the social sciences and arts. While it is relatively easy to map fundamentals in STEM, it will require deeper thinking in the social sciences and arts.

Further, with the increasing prevalence of e-learning and digitization of even the traditional learning streams, Big Data has begun to emerge as a source of insight into mapping fundamentals, problem-solving and learning outcomes. Combining this data stream with AI can yield insights beyond probe-and-correct pedagogy to incorporate subliminal cues in learning content, leading to better results.

It is a fact that a significant contributor to learning outcomes at traditional educational institutes is osmosis during informal and even sub-conscious interactions with teachers and co-learners. With the coming of the Metaverse, e-learning can promote this osmosis in a Metaverse campus.

E-learning can adapt custom MindAxis-type probe-and-correct algorithms today as the AI technology and the broadband and cloud ecosystem is available. They will, of course, need to invest in modelling the subjects they teach in terms of a set of fundamentals and create probes that test a combination of these fundamentals.

The harnessing of Big Data to empower learning content with effective subliminal cues will need the institution of collecting and analyzing data streams. These data streams can begin flowing today, and with every passing month, e-learning platforms can become more subliminally powerful.

Metaverses are here, and with a dollop of creativity and investment, e-learning platforms can adapt them soon, adding the dimension of learning by osmosis to their outcomes.

Besides the belated second-generation innovations that await e-learning, a third-generation shift is waiting to happen in the next decade.

This third generation of e-learning awaits the arrival of a form of AI which will become the personal accessory of an individual – a form of AI I have called Concierge Intelligence (CI). I have written about CI in my MxMIndia column of 6th Jan 2020 titled “The Coming Post-Digital Age“.

CI will become a learning enabler that is custom-tailored to an individual. Third-generation e-learning platforms will need to work with an individual’s CI to participate in the individual’s learning journey.

After years of frenzied VC investments, e-learning brands in India and the world are beginning to falter. Many like Lido Learning have folded ignominiously in India, and others like Unacademy have had to curtail plans. Moreover, the Covid bump that e-learning got is beginning to fade away.

The more innovative e-learning brands will invest in making the delayed leap into the second generation. These will be the brands that will harness the exciting opportunity in India of the newly instituted CET exams that will become the standard admission criteria even for degree colleges in science, arts, and commerce.

And these will be the brands that will be well poised to keep their lead in the next decade as the time comes to transit to the third generation of e-learning.


Ashoke Agarrwal is a veteran advertising professional with around four decades in advertising and marketing services. Agarrwal, a chemical engineer from IIT Mumbai and a postgraduate from IIM Bangalore, is a pro-entrepreneur with past and current ventures in market research, advertising, CGI, e-learning and brand consultancy. He writes on MxMIndia every other Thursday. His views here are personal.


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