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Byju Raveendran is among the few to score 100 percent on India’s famously difficult Common Admission Test, a post-graduate admissions exam. After a few years teaching others how to ace the test, he was determined to solve a more basic, prevalent problem—how to offer the widest range of Indian students a world-class math education.
An app he created in 2015—called Byju’s—is moving in that direction. The application, affordable and accessible in all parts of India, has enabled 900,000 subscription-paying students to expand their education regardless of their personal circumstances. That’s exactly what Raveendran, now 38 years old, had in mind when he came up with the idea. “We believe that a level playing field for all students will enable them to learn better,” he says.
The app is now part of Think and Learn Private, Ltd., the largest for-profit provider of digital education content in India. It had generated $85 million in revenues as of the end of its last fiscal year and has a renewal rate of 85 percent. Since over 92 percent of surveyed parents report an improvement in their child’s grades, investors are also confident that Byju’s can help narrow the national education gap.
Those investors include IFC. In December 2016, IFC acquired a minority equity stake valued at $9 million to help the company expand its technology development and increase its offerings across India and internationally. Since 2016, Byju’s has obtained about $245 million from marquee investors. It was the first investee in the Asia region by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and also raised funds from top private equity and venture capital firms like Lightspeed, Sequoia, and Verlinvest. In August 2017, it entered an elite group, becoming a “unicorn” company—a startup that has grown to a value of over $1 billion. It is the 11th technology start-up to cross that threshold in India.
In creating the app, Raveendran was responding to problems he had observed throughout India. Almost half of fifth graders cannot read second-grade texts, and in rural India, just under three-quarters of students in third grade can not solve a two-digit subtraction problem. By fifth grade, half remain unable do so. In 2009, the last time India participated in the global Program for International Assessment (PISA), it ranked 74 out of 75.
The challenge facing Indian education is deep as well as broad. For example, good quality teachers tend to be concentrated in large cities where there are more resources to pay them. In March 2015, there was a shortage of half a million teachers, and the government recruited untrained teachers at a lower pay grade to fill the gaps. Student-teacher ratios are high: one teacher to every 35 students. Education services are geared toward memorization that will help students pass exams, not to think critically.
Raveendran’s goal for the Byju’s app is to change the learning culture enough to help students pass their tests and also develop a deeper level of understanding of complex math and science subjects. To make this possible, the company’s developers blend content, media, and technology in a format that is conducive to connecting with students and their different learning styles.
That flexible approach to learning is exactly what eighth-grader Jubair Anasari needed. He is from the State of Jharkhand, a region that suffers from the greatest poverty, illiteracy, and overpopulation in India. Though he had always dreamed of studying in a better school than those available to him, education was a low priority for his family. But his grandfather gave him a one-year subscription to Byju’s so he could delve deeper into biology and math, two of his interests.
The app not only helped Anasari pursue these fields, but its use of animation and 3D changed the way he viewed complex topics. “To me, math was always something that had to be written down and practiced; I rarely understood the basics of any concept,” he says. “With the Byju’s app, I can visualize problems and see the logic behind each topic. The app eased my learning process.”
Making Education Accessible Worldwide
India is hardly the only country whose citizens crave education resources that will help their families thrive. In FY18, IFC committed $230 million in new financing to education companies for our own account. And to assure the best match between a student’s education and their career prospects, IFC’s Employability Tool allows institutions to evaluate the effectiveness of professional placement services for students. It goes beyond indicators like graduation and placement rates to assess the quality and relevance of learning.
Raveendran would approve—because the Byju’s app helps students see that education isn’t just about tests. “We strive to make learning enjoyable,” he says, “so that students will learn not just for the sake of exams but for life.”
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Published in July 2018