Schools will come back but never be 100 pc analogue anymore: Toppr founder Zishaan Hayath

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times…for an edtech startup. 

This is true for anywhere in the world, but more so in India, which has one of the largest student populations running into hundreds of millions. 

With offline education facing a crisis of continuity in the pandemic, online learning saw growth and new opportunities like never before. 

Toppr, among India’s leading edtech startups in the K-12 space, claims it witnessed a 9X growth in traffic post the lockdown-led nationwide school closures. 

“Its users grew from 15 million to 35 million in nine-odd months, it launched new products almost overnight, and — like several others in edtech —“reimagined and reinvented” learning delivery via tech. “

With great power comes great responsibility, they say. 

Edtech startups are now tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the momentum in remote learning, scaling it to newer heights, penetrating non-metro areas that lack digital infrastructure for online classes, and catering to what is being seen as an “irreversible” behavioural change in students, teachers, schools, and all other stakeholders in the education system.

In an exclusive interview with YourStory, Toppr Founder and CEO Zishaan Hayath talks about the dramatic changes in education, Toppr’s sharp growth in the pandemic, opportunities and challenges for edtech startups in the new normal, impact of NEP 2020 on K-12 education, and if physical classrooms are ever coming back. 

Q. What did 2020 mean for Toppr given you existed in the online learning space way before the pandemic began? Were there any advantages over companies that had to move online forcibly?

“We benefited from the increased mindshare and saw a 9X growth in traffic on our platform. This was possible because of our comprehensive platform offering — video classes, live classes, practice, test series, doubt solving, etc. — all coming together to create a complete learning experience, something that Toppr has advocated since inception. “

Q. Talk us through the initial days of the lockdown when there was total chaos. You’d shared some impressive numbers on Twitter from those initial weeks. What was the immediate impact on Toppr’s growth?

The sudden lockdown caught us all by surprise. While we were adapting to the new style of working from home, school closures halted student learning almost universally. 

So, the first thing we did was make live classes free for all students. Almost immediately, we saw a huge uptick in both users and their engagement on the platform, indicative of the increased mindshare we talked about. 

A year ago, we had six to seven million users on our platform. By mid-2020, that number was 15 million, and today, we are at 35 million.

Q. Did Toppr do anything fundamentally different to deal with the sudden surge in new users? How did you ease their onboarding? 

Acknowledging all stakeholders in the education ecosystem, we took two major steps. a) We made it easier for parents to enrol their kids on our platform by providing more flexibility in packages based on requirements and paying capacity. b) In July, we launched School OS to provide one integrated platform for all stakeholders in the schooling system, i.e., students, teachers, school administrators, and parents. School OS enables teachers to do what they do the best — teach — while it takes care of learning material and technology.

We also launched Toppr Codr (live 1:1 coding classes for kids aged 6-18) and Toppr Answr (a free 24X7 help app to guide students step-by-step on homework). 

Q. Describe the School OS product. What were the gaps you identified in the learning delivery space that led to it? And how challenging was it to get a new product running in such quick time?

During the lockdown, everyone had to unlearn a set of skills and learn new ones to familiarise, reimagine, and reinvent the education system.  For the past seven years, we’d been thinking about products from students’ perspective, but when the pandemic hit, we went back to the drawing board to rebuild it from schools’ and teachers’ POV. 

 We took everything we had, questioned every aspect and feature, and then put together a new platform, in record time (2-2.5 months) to serve all stakeholders effectively.

Q. How has the response to School OS been? Tell us more about the platform’s features and how it stands out in a cluttered market.

We built School OS in close collaboration with schools keeping their needs in mind. For example, sending multiple meeting links and creating digital content for each class can be a tedious process for teachers.    We took their feedback right at the product development phase, and consequently, we received phenomenal response from teachers, administrators, and students. Last month, teachers conducted nearly 1,90,000 unique lectures on School OS.

School OS is the first-of-its-kind product that brings together (i) user management system, (ii) learning management system, (iii) content partner, and (iv) live-class solution, and more into one platform. 

It is built on our ethos of personalisation, high-quality UX, and deep content. We aim to reach one million daily active users and onboard 3,000 schools across 50 cities on School OS. We have also collaborated with the Ryan Group of Schools. 

Q. Lastly, what is the best and worst thing about being an online education company in India in 2021? 

The best thing is that the market is maturing and accepting now. From schools and students to investors, everyone is opening up to the idea of technology and its importance in our education system. 

However, it is extremely important to stay focused on what you want to build versus what might be alluring in the short term. Many education companies, especially edtech startups, will jump at the COVID-19 opportunity and build for meeting short-term needs. Our suggestion is that — don’t fall in the trap.

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