Will edtech devalue teachers?

Teachers play an important – if not the most important – role in ‘normal’ schools and colleges. However, in edtech companies, managers, capital investors, marketing and sales professionals are much more important. Yes, teachers are necessary, but they are like drivers for Uber. How do we make sense of this situation?

Private education

The education business is not new in India. There have been private schools and tutorial colleges in the country for a long time. However, teachers continued to be important even in these for-profit education enterprises. Why?

There could be some underlying economic reasons. Although there is an owner or manager who lays out some expense, a private school is not much more than a set of teachers. If we think about a low-fee private school with minimal infrastructure, there is nothing much beyond the teachers involved.

Hence, teachers are important. (Yes, they may be getting only a minimal salary, but that is because of the willingness of people with some qualifications to work in these schools at such low salaries). The importance of ‘capital’ is not much greater than the ‘labour’ of teachers in private schools.

There are self-financing colleges in India. I would argue that teachers are important even in such colleges, for an important economic reason. Scaling up is difficult in conventional education. Productivity cannot be increased beyond a certain point.

A teacher may be needed to teach a subject for 30 to 50 students and there can be a decline in quality if the number of students in a class increases to, say, 100 or more. Moreover, there may be no increase in the productivity of professionals like teachers or nurses, but their cost can go up based on supply and demand conditions in the labour market.

The cost of two self-financing colleges that cater, for instance, to 6,000 students could be almost twice that of a college with 3,000 students. There are no increasing returns to scaling up. Yes, capital is important, starting with the political capital to get all the required approvals from regulatory agencies. Then capital is needed to invest in infrastructure.

Due to the higher demand for such colleges in general – due to the undersupply of public higher education – and because admission is usually linked to tests regulated by the government, such colleges may not have to hire many marketing managers and sales professionals to promote themselves.

For all these reasons, teachers continue to be somewhat important even in self-financing colleges.

Scaling up with edtech

However, edtech companies mark a drastic change in the situation.

First of all, there are increasing returns when it comes to scaling up. Profits go up drastically when firms can increase their subscribers from 100,000 students to one million, but the cost of operations may go up only marginally. Achieving a higher number of students is important for the survival of the business.

This requires investment in newspaper and TV advertisements and the services of marketing professionals. Most of the time, subscribers (or students) deal directly with sales professionals.

Of course, there is a need for learning materials. However, dependence on teachers is less for a number of reasons. If a good teacher can deliver a lecture once, the copy of this lecture (for which the rights can be retained by the company) can be used millions of times without the presence of the teacher. Learning materials can be bought as a product rather than hiring a teacher for his or her service.

There may be a set of people who are needed to address questions from students, but technology may help to address all these questions and there could therefore be less need for the presence of a well-trained person (teacher) over time.

Moreover, online education through edtech companies can increase the productivity of teachers drastically. In that sense, the education company’s dependence on a teacher is less than Uber’s dependence on drivers. A driver’s presence is necessary to take a passenger from point A to B, but a teacher’s recorded lecture can be broadcast to multiple audiences at the same time.

Dominance of marketing and sales managers

A few exceptional teachers may become major contractors or part-owners of an education business, but the majority may become less and less important in the edtech space. Marketing managers and sales professionals are much more important to get new subscribers.

I am told that these new generation companies are interested in those teachers who can bring in more business. When a teacher is recruited, a part of his or her time is used to attract more subscribers.

Teachers’ conventional qualifications are becoming increasingly unimportant. Those who retake a particular examination a number of times may become proficient teachers if they are coached specifically for that examination.

The training needed to become a teacher or to do higher levels of research are unimportant in the new business model. The value of teachers may therefore depend on their capacity to attract and retain subscribers. I am not underestimating teaching ability. Some are very good teachers in the sense of helping students to achieve higher scores in particular examinations.

My intention is not to paint a highly pessimistic picture. However we, as conventional teachers, cannot neglect the reality of what is coming. Let us hope that conventional education will persist and teachers will continue to be valued. But at the same time, we cannot just continue in our imaginary world. Young people who plan to become teachers need to think about innovative ways to make what they do socially and economically useful.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University in India. His blog can be found here. This article was first published on his blog.