While online coaching has become a big hit during the lockdown, the path ahead is not easy, reports Rupesh Dutta.
The COVID-19 lockdown came as a "shock" for Sakshi Sharma, as coaching classes and schools closed abruptly amid her preparations for the NEET medical exams. The possibility that she could have to wait for a year to take the test again was worrying.
But, some days into the lockdown, Sharma and her friends had found an alternative in online classes.
Experts say these will remain "an all-weather friend" not only for students preparing for competitive exams like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, but for also imparting education in general in the COVID-19-induced 'new normal'.
"It (the lockdown) came as a shock... I and many others like me had no idea what to do. We were in the midst of preparing for the exam and the thought of wasting a year was terrifying.
"My friends and I immediately shifted our focus to online coaching and were well prepared by September," Sharma, who hails from Chandigarh, told PTI over phone.
She took the NEET in September after the exam -- which is a gateway for admission to MBBS, BDS and other undergraduate medical courses -- was deferred twice from its scheduled date of May 3. It was first rescheduled for July 26 and then to September 13 by the National Testing Agency in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Centre had announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown from March 25 to check the spread of the coronavirus.
From June 8, the government started gradually easing restrictions.
The number of students enrolling for virtual classes has witnessed an exponential rise and the trend is likely to stay, the experts from the education industry said.
Like NEET, other examinations that were scheduled in the months of April and May were also postponed. Later, however, the Centre decided to conduct them amid strict COVID-19 safety measures to ensure students do not miss an academic year.
"The coronavirus pandemic brought various sectors to a grinding halt and students were stuck in a limbo," Kapil Gupta, founder and CEO of NEETprep, a prominent online coaching centre, said.
"Left with little choice, the jittery lot switched to online learning which was not affected by the lockdown."
Immediately after the lockdown, students were anxious as they had been studying for months and did not want to lose momentum before exams.
At the same time, they were concerned about physically attending classrooms due to COVID-19, Gupta said.
"This is why online classes are a boon because they (the students) did not have to worry about wearing a mask or maintaining social distancing.
"Online coaching has become a big hit, especially among those preparing for NEET and JEE exams. It proved to be their saviour during the COVID crisis," he said.
Gupta added that while the COVID-19 situation has definitely provided an opportunity for online platforms to gain a bigger reach in a short period of time, it would be important for those offering this service to present themselves as a credible alternative in the long run as well.
"I believe it is established that the quality of content (lectures, questions, mock tests) is much better than classroom coaching, but enforcing discipline amongst students without a physical classroom is a challenge," Gupta said.
Coaching centres such as NEETprep and others have created special course modules for students from every corner of the country after giving due consideration to their requirements, he said.
"We spend 50 per cent of our effort in developing the right communication and product features that will motivate student to pace themselves, set targets and not give up," Gupta said.
Endorsing the Centre's decision to conduct entrance examinations, Gupta said the percentage of students who cleared NEET this year has surged, with the topper scoring a perfect 720 after talking online classes.
"We are expecting 550+ students to get into coveted government medical colleges this year and that number is testimony to our success in the aspects of discipline and motivation," he said.
Some experts said that the future of learning is online and if coaching institutes want to survive, they must take that into consideration.
"Situations like the COVID-19 lockdown are boosters to a paradigm shift. Time saving, extensive content and wider availability of faculty drives students towards online coaching," Anil Dhall, head of department of cardiology at Janakpuri Super-specialty Hospital, said.
"Gradually, all conventional coaching centres will have to offer online coaching if they want to survive," Dhall, a close observer of the medical education system, told PTI.
Ankit Shyamsukha, CEO of the Delhi-based ICA Edu Skills, said embracing the new normal is the only way forward.
"With COVID, we saw many sectors embracing technology like never before.
"In India, coaching before March 24, 2020, was highly personal in nature; COVID-19 forced a majority of institutes to turn to technology to continue services.
"The exams only proved the case for long term technology shift viability and also highlighted the adaptability power of the next generation," he said.
R L Raina, vice chancellor, J K Lakshmipat Univey, Jaipur, said online coaching is also giving a major boost to the country's revenue.
The global online education market is expected to be valued ar $319.167 billion by 2025, as compared to $187.877 billion in 2019, he said.
"With North America having largest market share, Asia-Pacific countries including China, India, Malaysia and South Korea are set to see the most rapid regional growth," he said.
"Against this, the Indian online education market was valued at Rs 39 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach Rs 360.3 billion by 2024 according to a report," Raina said.
While sheer numbers, coupled with a vast English-speaking population, make India an impressive market, it has to be upgraded in terms of digital infrastructure, skilling of teachers and students and supporting a vast number of digitally-disadvantaged people, he warned.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com