Shreyas Kulkarni

Edutech firms are barely scratching the surface, says Great Learning's Hari Krishnan Nair

The co-founder talks about Great Learning's new ad, course development and marketing challenges, and if he's looking to diversify.

There's a scene in the Bollywood movie '3 Idiots' where Sharman Joshi and R Madhavan (two of the three co-leads) are distraught after checking their exam result. The two are placed at the bottom (the last two ranks).

But, the result wasn't the real reason for their anguish. Instead, it was the fact that their best friend 'Rancho' (played by Aamir Khan) stood first – classic human behaviour.

Something similar is seen in edutech firm Great Learning's first ad called 'Power Ahead'. It shows two friends, who had apparently started working together, but one of them races ahead to become the other's boss. There's a comic twist to the ad, but at the end, we're shown how the boss continuously upskilled himself to get ahead in his career.

Great Learning, which started in 2013, offers a slew of online programs for college students and young professionals in AI, cloud computing, data science, cybersecurity, etc.

Hari Krishnan Nair, co-founder, Great Learning, spoke to afaqs! about the ad and said that they wanted to create a narrative that people could relate to. He spoke about the two paths they could have chosen.

One, treat this subject through the fear of missing out, or fear of something bad happening. Another is about an irrational promise, like to learn and get a new job, or a higher salary right away. But they didn't go with the two because these are beaten down paths.

Abhijit Avasthi, Sideways Consulting, who's behind the ad said, "I am really excited to lay the foundation for the Great Learning brand story. With the world changing so rapidly, in the coming years upskilling is going to be crucial for India and its workforce. Our story brings alive an absolute truth - 'growth only comes from learning' - in a relatable manner that most of us have encountered at some point. I believe in an inward looking, degree-obsessed category, this film is a breath of fresh air."

Prasoon Pandey said, "It was deeply satisfying for me to work on this film because it is a really sensitive story about a great friendship in the backdrop of Career Enhancing Programmes that could actually propel friends into very different orbits."

With the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, edutech firms have seen an exponential surge in popularity. As per an Omidyar Network India & RedSeer report, by 2022, the Post-K12 (Class 12) market is set to grow 3.7 times to create a $1.8 billion market. Some of the leading brands ready to capture the market include Great Learning, upGrad, Udemy, Simplilearn, etc.

According to Nair, "The number of people upskilling is tiny as compared to the addressable population that is so large, and all of us (the edutech firms) are barely scratching the surface."

Completion rate

It's often seen that people sign up for online courses, but don't complete it. Nair said that learning is a hard thing and involves a lot of effort. It can't be a passive experience because if it is, it's not learning.

He then went back to 2014 when MOOCs were a big thing and got millions of registrations. You were learning from Harvard or Stanford faculties, but "the completion rates were just two to three per cent," said the co-founder.

"If you just put videos out there, people won't learn," said Nair, adding that Great Learning's completion rate is an impressive 92 per cent. He credits 'assisted learning', which is a personalised learning experience, for this high completion rate.

Course development or marketing, what's more challenging?

Let's talk about course development first, said Nair. "Say, we're developing a course in data science. For ease of understanding, let's compare it with what would have happened in a brick and mortar school. It would have created a homogeneous set of candidates, who all have a certain base understanding, thereby making it easy to deliver the course."

"If the power of online has to reach the masses, you have to enable more and more people to come and learn," added Nair.

Also, you have to bear in mind that you can't create a vanilla 'one-size-fits-all' experience. "It's important we understand the diversity of learners... Solve the problem proactively by appreciating the diversity that exists, and create your learning modules or experiences in such a way that it caters to different sets of audiences."

The challenge with marketing, remarked Nair, is that the space is getting more and more competitive and the problem is that anybody can come and say anything. You could very well have an edutech company that started a year back and claim big numbers.

"It adds to the confusion of the audience, in terms of where they should learn from and whom to trust, but our firm opinion is that in the long-term, results speak for themselves. As time progresses, the established players will be there and short-term ones will wither away."

He said that all edutech companies have a responsibility to build "realistic expectations". "You see ads that say become a data scientist in three months, or 30 hours... When you mislead people with such communication, your brand credibility goes for a toss and consumers give up on upskilling, which will have a far more detrimental impact on their careers."

Any plans to diversify into say school content?

Nair says, "We're not looking to diversify into schools. Our capabilities and strength lie in professional learning and higher education, and we want to play to those strengths because we understand that space. College students and working professionals is where we want to focus on, and create more and more viable options for them."

He further told us that we (Great Learning) will diversify in the sense that we've added management, digital marketing, cloud computing, technology courses, and expanded our portfolio. From a consumer standpoint, we would want to restrict ourselves to professionals and college students.

"Because of COVID-19, people have started believing in online education. What otherwise would have taken a few years, has taken a few months. Now, edutech companies have the responsibility to not break that trust," Nair signed off.

Have news to share? Write to us