There’s an old adage that says the more things change, the more they stay the same. Amit Mahensaria and his co-founders are determined to prove the saying wrong, at least in India’s ed-tech space.
By Casey Hynes, Forbes
Mahensaria, Manish Kumar and Alok Choudary are the founders of Impartus, a Bangalore-based video learning company that has raised $4.1 million from Kaizen Private Equity. Impartus is a video learning platform that allows teachers to expand their reach beyond geographic constraints and enables more students to access quality materials.
“When I was student 15 years back, I used to go into the classroom, learn from teachers, and have to photocopy notes after,” Mahensaria said. “Fifteen years later, it’s still the same.” But the education industry in India and throughout Asia is slowly changing. Mahensaria, Impartus’ chief strategy officer, and his co-founders are doing their part to move it along.
“Videos are going to come into the ed-tech space in a massive way,” Mahensaria said. Impartus’ primary service at the moment is lecture capture, enabling instructors to record, annotate, and distribute their lectures quickly and broadly. The technology provides students in remote areas or second-tier campuses to access quality materials, a critical issue in parts of India.
Literacy rates are particularly bad in rural communities, with only three out of four eighth graders being able to read grade 2 materials. School enrollment among 6-14 year olds is strong, but the quality of education is low and enrollment drops substantially among older students, according to a 2015 report from the ASER Centre. Those who make it to the college level recognize that they are often receiving poor quality educations, Mahensaria said. They’re then faced with the choice of dropping out of school or moving to a city with better university prospects.
“There’s already the problem of having few quality teachers, so I thought, ‘How can I take their lessons to the masses?’” Mahensaria said.
Impartus is working with a state government in East India to connect more than 3,000 schools to Impartus’ platform, 80% of which are in rural and violence-prone areas. The objective is to bring quality lectures to people in these areas via teachers who speak the local language and can use Impartus to enhance their courses.
Teaching the teachers
Before bringing lessons to the masses, however, Impartus needed to get teachers to use the technology. Teachers are often wary about new tech platforms, viewing them as burdens rather than opportunities to streamline their workloads, Mahensaria said.
“They are apprehensive of technology. I think, for this, ed-tech companies are more to blame than teachers,” he said. “In India, software is booming, everyone wants to be software developers. A lot of these software developers, including us, with no background in education, created software solutions for teachers. A lot of these ed-tech companies with virtually no background in education developed software solutions, sold it to management, and pushed it to teachers, which was not really serving the teachers. It was increasing the work of the teachers.”
Mahensaria and his co-founders failed with a previous attempt at ed-tech for this reason. “I realize this is a lacuna for us — our DNA is not in education,” he said.
Before Impartus, they launched a learning and school management systems that allowed students to submit assignments and administrators to track attendance, learning outcomes, and other metrics. However, the approach was too broad and missed the mark on educators’ needs, Mahensaria said.
“The problem was that we were trying to do everything that a school needs and were not doing anything the best,” he said. “Also, we were developing the products from a developer’s perspective and not from the perspective of the actual pain points of customers.”
But they learned from their past mistakes and built Impartus with teachers in mind. That’s why Impartus requires minimal set-up and maintenance. Programmed cameras are installed in classrooms, and they operate based on the lecture schedule. The cameras switch on and off automatically, capturing lectures that are edited by a computer program as soon as the class ends. Lectures can be live streamed to students who study at other campuses or cannot attend in person, and they’re also available for watching later.
Impartus in action
The flexible viewing options made it a particularly attractive option for the Institute of Finance and International Management business school in Bangalore. Sanjay Padode, the secretary of the Center of Developmental Education and a member of IFIM’s board of governors, helped pilot Impartus at the school. The platform was used to connect with working business professionals who wanted to attend classes but were often away from campus for work.
Padode introduced Impartus in one class initially but has since expanded it to 10. Despite fears that Impartus might not work in smaller cities or remote regions, Padode said Impartus has worked well for IFIM’s students.
“In a country like India, the quality of service of bandwidth and internet is a very large variable,” Padode said. “When you admit a student from one of these areas where the internet is not good, there are a lot of apprehensions, like, ‘Would they be able to see the video? Would they be able to participate? Would this be effective as a solution?’ Impartus as a whole delivered on all kinds of bandwidths. In fact, those who used it on 3G could attend class while stuck in traffic.”
Padode said IFIM’s faculty welcomed the technology because they saw the need for it among students. Rather than feeling as though they were being forced to adapt to an irrelevant platform, they embraced the tool, which made it easier to integrate into the learning management system.
“The faculty took it in the right spirit,” Padode said. “Soon they realized it was working well for them and they started relying on the system themselves.
Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Mahensaria said the company struggled for several months when it began operating in Malaysia, which was the first country it expanded into outside India. The team quickly realized that they couldn’t simply instruct employees on the ground in how to use Impartus. They needed local partners who could help them navigate the culture and make the platform work for its target audience there.
When Impartus launches in Hong Kong and Indonesia this fall, however, it will use a dual approach of giving direct input while also working with channel partners.
“There’s a lot of hand-holding, lots of ground-level work to make sure the technology is adopted,” Mahensaria said.
Impartus’ goal is to build a global, world-class product that benefits underserved markets throughout the region. Mahensaria believes the company is better positioned to do so than the Western edtech companies that have struggled to gain ground in India and other parts of Asia. As an Indian company, Impartus’ team understands the challenges of these markets.
“If you look at education technology, it’s great in the U.S., Europe, South Korea. But it’s really needed in other markets,” he said. “In emerging markets, the quality of education varies a lot. There are no standards.”
Companies that want to succeed in this part of the world must be able to address common problems such as a lack of quality teachers, resistance to technology on the part of educators, and lacking infrastructure.
“The markets we are choosing have a dire need for ed-tech,” Mahensaria said. “The product is evolving from an emerging market.”
Video learning in the future
The Impartus team won’t be satisfied with simply bringing video learning to India and other markets, however. They want to build an industry-leading product that integrates machine learning into the Impartus experience.
They’re currently working on using big data to provide real-time recommendations based on which parts of a lecture a student is watching at any given time. The algorithm will account for both subject matter and user history to serve the most relevant options possible. Impartus has partnered with Xerox Research Centre to develop the new system, which will also enable search within videos.
Edtech is not without its challenges, in India and in other emerging markets. Impartus’ leaders seem keenly aware of this, however, and they’re determined to meet those challenges with cutting-edge technology and genuine innovation.
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