India’s ed-tech is a predatory market. Modi govt can study from UK, US
ONEIn the midst of discussions about an imminent specialized policy framework for India’s burgeoning ed-tech industry, according to Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, some of the biggest players like Byju’s and Unacademy have organized themselves into a consortium and are believed to have adopted a “common code of conduct” to stave off third-party regulation. In recent months there have been calls for increased regulatory oversight, inside and outside Parliament, for an industry that generates around $2 billion a year.
The ed tech ecosystem is exceptional as education is a requirement for individual and societal advancement. This means companies in the industry may have a greater fiduciary responsibility to their consumers than most other digital market segments.
Therefore, it is important to understand the two most common societal demands in order to provide an initial roadmap for ed-tech policy.
Also read: Unacademy, Byju helps clear your doubts but has few answers about privacy
Aggressive Marketing Practices by Ed-tech
The first is associated with aggressive marketing practices aimed at exploiting children and their parents. For example, Congressman Karti Chidambaram wrote a letter to the Minister of Education last December about the “false claims” companies make in their advertisements. These include claims that ed-tech companies “helped candidates crack UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) exams by collecting candidates’ data when they use the free resources.” Another problem is the lack of disclosure and transparency in the services offered by ed tech companies. According to Chidambaram, this includes ambiguities in aspects such as “learner retention” and “improving grades”.
As a result, the Department of Education released a lightweight guide to Ed-Tech. This short document urges users to exercise caution when paying for ed tech services, many of which operate on a “freemium model.” The freemium model allows users to try out ed-tech services, sometimes without adequate warning of fees they’ll have to pay unless they specifically opt out of subsequent subscriptions. The guide also encourages parents and users to check online reviews and report complaints before using ed-tech services.
At its worst, ed-tech represents a predatory market that profits from people’s pursuit of their children and themselves. This business momentum is not limited to online education. The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, has set itself the task of stopping the “commercialization of education” and the associated “usury” in traditional, stationary education as well. However, the same policy promotes private sector involvement and “digital pedagogy” as crucial to improving educational outcomes. There is no doubt that both private capital and technology are needed to close gaps in access to quality education. As such, a well-regulated ed-tech industry could prove to be a grand leveler at best.
Also read: Don’t be lured by ads from ed-tech firms, do your research to avoid scams, government tells parents
Need for horizontal regulations
Ed-Tech requires a horizontal and cross-divisional governance framework rather than an industry-specific or siled one. This is because important policy gaps in ed-tech overlap with many known gaps in digital governance. Let’s look at the advertising and marketing related concerns first. The need of the hour is a guideline to distinguish targeted advertising from misleading or false. The former concerns data protection, the latter concerns consumer protection.
Most of the digital market revenue comes from targeted advertising based on user data. Google and Facebook generate around 80 and 99 percent of their respective revenues from digital advertising. Personally identifiable information, such as name and age, and non-personally identifiable information, such as user preferences and preferences, are solicited or inferred and then used to better target ads.
As targeted advertising is now the cornerstone of commerce on the internet, India needs to regulate the use of data for such activities. Previous articles in this series have argued for the need for a data protection law that strikes a reasonable balance between user privacy and commercial interests. This becomes even more relevant in the context of the underage data that many ed tech companies collect.
On the other hand, false or misleading ads largely fall into the domain of the newly designated Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA). Established in 2020, the CCPA released draft guidelines regulating misleading advertising last year. These include requirements appropriate to address ed-tech market concerns such as: B. the extent of a consumer’s obligation to take advantage of a free offer. However, similar to the Data Protection Act, these guidelines have not yet caught on. Any future ed-tech policy should not reinforce the design flaws that such statutes have held back. Instead, it should serve as a trigger to resolve them swiftly, towards the “light but tough” regulations advocated by the NEP.
Also read: Why bankers, engineers, researchers and other professionals are making teachers on edtech platforms
Where vertical approaches can work
We also need to consider common issues like lack of transparency and disclosures in ed-tech. There are already hundreds of ed tech companies in India offering as many variations of courses and pursuing different business models. They require standards that are enforceable and do not stifle the kind of innovation needed to make quality education accessible to all. This is an area where global best practices serve as practical guidance. The United States, for example, allows parents and guardians to review educational materials, receive notifications, and opt-out of marketing materials issued by certain educational institutions about changing student rights protections. A broad and calibrated application of such principles, allowing for societal participation in the oversight of ed-tech, would benefit India, especially given the limited government capacity to do so.
The Narendra Modi government can issue specific guidelines under the Information Technology Act of 2000 to ensure a safe, inclusive and convenient user experience for any type of e-commerce business. She has already done so for social media intermediaries, as well as digital media and news publishers via industry-specific policies in 2021 that advocate self-regulation. These include provisions related to content standards and consumer complaints. Therefore, there is an opportunity to address fundamental hygiene issues in the education industry that lie at the intersection of digital technology and e-commerce.
Finally, Ed-Tech requires development support tied to the quality standards of the services. Countries like the UK have official policies aimed at increasing the role of technology in education. These include government action to help schools and other institutions source “trustworthy, quality (ed-tech) products,” requiring ed-tech suppliers to meet minimum cybersecurity standards, support for all schools to enabling access to high quality broadband infrastructure ed-tech and for the UK to consolidate its global leadership in education through the use of technology. Again, there are several clues for Indian policymaking on ed-tech. You must take note.
The author works at the Koan Advisory Group, a technology policy consultancy. Views are personal.
This article is part of ThePrint-Koan Advisory series analyzing emerging policies, laws and regulations in India’s technology sector. Read all articles here.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)