COVID has acted more like a catalyst for ed-tech: Phalgun Kompalli, Upgrad

The Ed-Tech sector is one of the sectors that has seen tremendous growth during the COVID times. As students transitioned to online education, ed-tech companies have had a busy time. Besides academic classes, skill upgradation has also been taking place online.

One such company that has recorded significant growth during the lockdown is Upgrad, India’s largest online higher education company. Mayank Kumar, Ronnie Screwvala, Phalgun Kompalli, Rohit Dhar and Puneet Tanwar form the core team of the company.

Also read:  #FightBackCorona: Every problem represents a unique opportunity: Gautam B Thakker

As part of the special Knowledge Series, powered by mFilterIt, Adgully’s Founder & CEO Bijoya Ghosh spoke to Phalgun Kompalli, Co-Founder, Upgrad, to decode the success mantra of Upgrade and the road ahead for the ed-tech sector.

What has kept Upgrad busy for the last 8-9 months?

Over the last 8-9 months, obviously COVID has brought in its own set of challenges. There were a few changes that we really had to go through because of the pandemic. Work from home was one those big transitions for us. As a young organisation, we did face our set of challenges. Pre-COVID, Upgrad had a work force of 600 people and now we have 2,200 people. Making sure to grow and measure the organisation without compromising on the culture of the company was a challenge.

Second would definitely be the opportunity from our university and learners’ standpoint.

A lot of our university partners reached out to us, saying that they didn’t know what to do during the lockdown. Teaching the students was important, but the right execution wasn’t found. We have helped about 200 universities and guided them to run online courses. That really took a lot of effort from our side.

The last part would be the learners. COVID-19 has given people some to reflect while also increasing demand. A lot of people looked at online learning to help skill themselves and pursue more suitable careers. That’s where we came in. Before COVID we had a portfolio of about 30 programs while now we have a portfolio of 110 programs. We have really accelerated on the choice and value proposition that we can offer the consumer.

How is Upgrad looking to make the most of the opportunity? How do strike a balance between physical and digital learning?

In terms of opportunity, like I said, COVID hasn’t caused any inflection. It’s not like we were on level 1 and we went to level 10 because of the pandemic. We’ve been stable and continue to grow at 100-120% year on year like we did before the pandemic. However, what it has done for ed-tech in general is, it has made online learning more acceptable, which wasn’t the case before the pandemic. Everyone has suddenly realised there’s a lot one can do online which wasn’t perceived as possible to do effectively before. The tailwinds have helped us to break those perceptions and barriers and what we thought would take 3 years has happened in the last 6 months.

When it comes to how we are looking to capitalise, a lot of the stakeholders now are more open to the impact of online learning.

We are looking to accelerate our growth by partnering with multiple universities and launching more programs. We’ve almost doubled our portfolio. What we thought we’d achieve in the first 5 years, we’ve achieved in the last 9 months. We’ve also laid out the foundations for international expansion.

When it comes to leveraging physical vs digital and how we toe the line there, we’ve always been advocates of digital first learning experiences and the power it has. I believe in a digital classroom, everyone is in the first row and there’s ample attention given to everyone present. We’re also seeing to work with universities to introduce a blended concept of online plus offline.

What are the long-term implications of the pandemic on ed-tech?

It has seriously accelerated what was anyway going to happen. COVID has acted more like a catalyst for Ed tech rather than changing anything.

In terms of the future, most colleges and schools you talk to today believe that the future of education is blended. If you asked them the same question 18 months back they would have not said the same thing. What they have seen is that with the situation of closed campuses and they were forced to provide education online, they have understood the power and efficiency of online learning and that I feel was a penny drop moment. While there are some things like social networks and personality building that will need to be focused on campus for holistic learning of the student, a lot can be carried out online and hence, they believe in a blended future.

How are you keeping up with the growing demands of your user base and how do you continue to innovate?

We do constant research and we have a million people visiting our website. We have a lot of free programs that people can take up to get a taste of offline learning. Through this, we get to know what people like or don't like. We are in constant touch with corporates who tell us what is in demand in terms of skills. Based on that we launch new programs. For example, we launched a new LLM program in corporate and financial law. We launched that after we realised there was a need for that program in the industry. Similarly, we are going to launch new programs in psychology, arts, banking and finance and fashion management. So, understanding trends and the need of the consumer along with insights from our research and corporate tie ups is what I think Upgrad has done really well.

In terms of engagement with the learners, whenever someone is doing a masters or any other program with us, we have about 150,000 data points that are collected. Then we look at the kind of interventions we are able to design. It could be automated or manual. A combination of both of these to ensure we are hand holding you to successfully complete the program I think is very powerful. That’s why the completion rates that we see are north of 90 per cent.

What are the dominating trends you see in 2021 for both digital and the ed-tech sector specifically?

I feel a large part of 2021 will still be affected by COVID. Things will still take time to get normal as we get the vaccine and people feel safe enough to live their lives like they used to. Work from home will continue and I feel it will have massive implications on organisation and the way people interact.

For ed-tech, I feel a lot of the schools, colleges and universities will see the value in blended learning and it'll be really effective. This will allow ed-tech companies to function in a larger pie in terms of the products and services they can offer. There’s a lot of responsibility on the ed-tech firms to create valuable products and services to establish this sector.


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