Friday, February 04, 2011

Whither "Canned Education"?

Recently, Agrawal Classes closed shop. Begun in the late 1950s, it spawned several "toppers" in the Science stream, and its students who got admitted into the IITs over the decades would be large enough in number to fill several batches. The owners' family was no longer interested in running these successful classes, and, instead of cashing out by selling the not-inconsiderable brand value of that trade mark, which needed to be defended quite often from sound-alike me-too's, they chose to close down quietly. 

This made me ponder on the phenomenon of "classes" -- teaching shops that supplement the primary educational institutions, viz. schools and colleges and also help students prepare for hyper-competitive examinations like the IIT-JEE (which Jim Clark, co-founder of Netscape, called the most difficult examination in the world to pass) ; or examinations that are notoriously difficult to pass (like the CA Examination which has pass percentages in the low single-digits). 

Rather than dwell on the question of whether they are a good thing or not, a point that can be argued ad nauseam, I thought of looking at the phenomenon and the number of business models it has spawned. I had first-hand experience of Agrawal Classes myself as a student of Mathematics, and I knew then as I do now that it was geared towards super-achievers. Ordinarily good students like me often fell at the first hurdle, and it was all we could do to even score 35% marks in their internal tests - when there were some students (destined to be toppers) who rarely dipped below the 90% mark. Only students who had scored above a particular percentage in the qualifying examination merited admission, even if one was willing to pay the stiff fees. 

Over the years, coaching classes have flourished -- with many being obviously more successful than others. But like Agrawal Classes, they were largely brand extensions of a single "Sir". They have often been named accordingly. For example, one of the most successful of such classes, JK Shah Classes, run tightly by the eponymous  "JK Sir", now runs out of 10 locations in 2 cities. Mr. J K Shah still engages classes, and he now has several other teachers who teach the mind-bogglingly large number of students in multiple batches, more than the total enrolments of any single commerce college in Mumbai, even though he uses a fraction of the space available to any large commerce college in Mumbai. Each of the teachers (many of them being CAs)  works really hard. 10 hours a day stand-up teaching is not uncommon. Each earns as much in two or three days than what a salaried CA with equivalent years of experience earns in a whole month working with a large company as a Finance Manager. J K Shah has run his business for over a quarter century with a sharp, single-minded focus: catering to coaching needs of CA-hopefuls. While he gets several opportunities or proposals to diversify, or to expand, he has kept things firmly in control -- all classes are owned by him; he has eschewed franchising or expansion into other domains (like teaching science). He personally selects and recruits teachers for his classes, and has very low attrition.  I had the good fortune of meeting him, and in a longish conversation I had with him and one of his proteges, I learnt or observed all what I have written above. Thus, this model is nothing but a scaled up (by a single order of magnitude) model of Agrawal Classes, in a particular domain.  However, there is one difference: the energy level demanded of teachers in JK Shah Classes (they have to teach a single topic/ subject repeatedly at all 10 locations, which means significant commuting every day) is much higher than the average teacher in Agrawal Classes - some of whom had time and energy left for conducting their own private tuitions as well.  If a teacher falls ill or is on leave, this always poses significant pressure on scheduling; because the others have to work harder and somehow fill the gap. The one thing common in JK Shah Classes and Agrawal Classes was their total commitment and absolute seriousness with which they viewed time schedules -- rarely are there time overruns because the syllabus is not covered.  The one big difference is that Agrawal remained a class for toppers or topper-hopefuls; JK Shah Classes prides itself on teaching almost any eligible student it can manage within its classroom capacity. However, many classes offer significant discount for students scoring very high percentages, thus encouraging high-scoring students to join.  

Of late, a newer model has emerged -- that of a model of growth in breadth of offering and also geographical coverage, often through partnering and franchising; sometimes through distance education, and sometimes through acquisition. Some, like Brilliant Tutorials, have pioneered a distance education model for competitive exams, in  engineering, medicine, banking, management and the civil services. Contact programmes are held in 14 cities (according to its website) and Model Tests are conducted in 44 cities across India. 

Educomp Solutions has pioneered use of high technology to achieve scale and reach (14,500 schools; benefitting 7.9 million students) for the K-12 (School+High School+Junior College) that were hitherto thought unthinkable. According to its website, teachers in some 4,500 schools now enhance their teaching by dipping into the large proprietary digital "instructor-led" content library built up by the company, using teaching aids like 3D animation, films, etc provided by Educomp through "SmartClasses" set up by them in different schools. Towards the end of a typical  class, every teacher displays questions on a screen, and every child in class gets ready to answer the questions with their personal answering device. Students click the answers, and instantly, teachers can get a score sheet for every child in class. She ends the class going over the parts of the lesson that the scores show as not clearly understood by the class. The technology also involves interested parents more closely by making available to them information the school chooses to share with them digitally. Also, the system largely reduces the drudgery involved in manual paper corrections by teachers.

Mahesh Tutorials (a brand owned by MT Educare Ltd) is another such model. It is a coaching class in the Agrawal or JK Shah Classes mould, with a major difference: It is growing its depth and geographical reach far, far more that the earlier named and their ilk. It is growing not so much through technology (though it spends a lot of money and effort on developing tutorial content) but through partnering (and lately through franchising, but these are tiny steps). They basically "swallow" individual classes, and allow these teachers a great deal of freedom to run them under the name and style of Mahesh Tutorials, thus getting advantage of both, the brand name recognition and marketing clout of Mahesh Tutorials, but also the excellent back-end support facilities that are shared by all "MT" educational offerings, like tutorial content, classroom scheduling and management, student interaction management, etc.. Over the years, after beginning with coaching classes for Std IX and X only, now they have day-care for pre-schoolers, kindergarten, junior college classes for Science and Commerce, and CA (CPT, IPCC, Final) students. They have grown from a single location to over 180 locations, including Dubai and London. And they still boast of the regular crop of "rankers" in most of the courses they offer, belying fears that quality and results may suffer with horizontal and vertical growth. 

Many feel that coaching classes themselves (Educomp is not strictly in this category) tended to make students dependent on "spoon-feeding" and that if they are not discriminating about the students they admit (like Agrawal Classes was), their results are bound to cluster near the average result for the examination as a whole. However, since so many students (an overwhelming 95% of CA IPCC and Final Students, for example) think that coaching classes is a good idea, maybe they need a second look. Especially because so many different business models all seem to be flourishing, the difference being scale and geographical reach. Indeed, some are simply cash-rich; some others are profitable but their expansion plans make them cash gobblers (like MT Educare which, while being profitable, is growing so rapidly that it has needed private equity infusion, and is likely to go public soon). 

MT Educare hopes to cross the chasm between "coaching classes" and educational institutions by setting up a private University, like Sikkim-Manipal, Amity or Lovely.  This is a "crossover" model - where one removes the distinction between coaching class and teaching institution. 

Are there other variants/ business models in this space? Would like comments from persons in the know.

1 comment:

  1. Coaching classes now do what some mothers did as a routine. One of the coaching classes u mentioned takes phone numbers of the students, students parents,..and send sms reminding them of classes, tests, marks. So technology @ work! Not sure if kids need classes but there is a whole generation out there believing that they need classes :-)