“If you look at the kind of education that is being offered in our schools… the narrative is pretty much the same as when we were in school,” says Yashovardhan Poddar, co-founder of Bengaluru-based ed-tech startup Openhouse, who wants to change how people think about after-school learning with various clubs and activities.
But Poddar and his co-partner Akshay Rampuria, both alumni of Stanford University, need the help of neighbourhood tutors in their aim to reenvision after-school learning and support and promote the culture of deeper learning – beyond what is being taught at schools.
“I noticed that a lot of after-school learning is actually in the hands of these local neighborhood teachers, and they are actually in the complete shadow economy,” Poddar tells indianexpress.com in a video interview. “They’re going door-to-door, or have small coaching centers, and I felt that is not what the future of after-school learning can be.”
Poddar says the ideology behind Openhouse has always been to create a platform where the role of teachers from the entire neighborhood will be at the forefront, a model similar to Uber.
The startup, founded in 2018, started with offline coaching centers — one in Kolkata and another in Bengaluru — but since last year, due to the pandemic, the company shifted its model and now classes are conducted completely online. Students can use the Openhouse online platform through its mobile app.
“A lot of these companies are content-drive and are trying to create digital content for children to consume,” Poddar said in reference to how India’s biggest ed-tech startups solely focus on developing e-content for consumption. “I think Tech 1.0 was a lot more around learning content, and while I do think learning content is very interesting, that is not inherent to how children like to learn,” he adds.
Poddar, who has a master’s degree in public policy from Stanford University, says he does not believe in the idea of students becoming self-learners by downloading the app and understanding concepts by watching videos. He, instead, is a big believer in the platform-style approach by bringing hundreds of neighborhood teachers to a common platform and empowering them with the right “digital tools” and the right “learning content,” including modern-day quizzes and automatic report cards.
“Education is a highly trust-based economy,” he says, adding that “the parent already knows a neighbourhood teacher, and if there is a more convenient and a higher quality way in which that teacher can teach the children, I think that’s the future of ed-tech.”
Openhouse, as Poddar describes, follows the marketplace model popularised by Zomato. There are about 150 teachers on-board, and Openhouse follows a revenue-sharing model. “They have the lion’s share of the classes, but we take a percentage from the classes for all of these services that we provide, plus mobile marketing support,” Poddar explains his business model.
Poddar, born and raised in Kolkata, is aware that most neighbourhood teachers are proficient in what they do but they lack the tech knowledge as well as the ability to bring their subject expertise in the form of quizzes or learning games. That’s where Openhouse’s tech and content team come into the picture. Classes are conducted using the company’s own video platform and every new teacher who joins Openhouse has to go through training for a month to get a hang of the platform.
“The profile would be the kind of teacher that we have already heard of or their neighbours have already heard of, “Poddar explains, adding that 60 per cent of the teachers who conduct academic classes at Openhouse are recommended by students. “If you ask me 10 years later if India wants to be at the top of ed-tech, it will be on the back of this tutor economy which is currently fragmented.”
Openhouse, which conducts academic classes and runs extracurricular clubs, mainly focuses on urban centers of India. There are over 2500 students enrolled in the academic side, while about 1000 students come to Poddar’s platform just to be a part of the clubs. Kolkata and Bengaluru remain the popular Tier-1 cities where Openhouse is popular but Poddar is now eyeing Delhi as the next big market. “We’re hoping that by the end of this year, we will partner with 1000 teachers… I think maybe we would be able to touch between 20 to 30,000 students,” he said.
Openhouse follows a subscription-based model, the ideal option for stable, recurring revenue. Instead of offering half-yearly or yearly packages, which Poddar himself is not a big fan of — he thinks parents often get stuck by paying a huge amount and then they insist their kids to keep attending the classes despite lack of interest — Openhouse charges a monthly sum (starting at Rs 2500 depending on the age group).
“We always wanted to create an after-school learning platform where students come not just for math, not just for chemistry, they can come for creative writing classes and for public speaking classes. “I think students in 11th and 12th standards ought to be able to discuss if there is a US-China war happening, how does it affect India?”
Openhouse preliminary focuses on school students from Classes 6 to 12. The classes, according to Poddar, are held in small groups, with just 10 students per batch. “One of the things we have observed for online classes is that the default behavior for most children is to turn off the video and be on mute, and they are just listening,” he said. Poddar says this style of learning is the biggest problem for student motivation and he wanted to solve the online learning problem by making the classes being conducted on Openhouse more social and interactive.
Poddar stresses that the “parent angle” is crucial for how online classes are conducted. “I often tell our teachers and students that you may like online, but if a parent is not convinced of the efficacy of an online class, this evolution will not happen in our country.”
Poddar says he does not want Openhouse to be seen as another ed-tech platform where students come and learn after they are done with the school. “One of our responsibilities is to not just provide classes that is what parents know and they want to pay for but can actually motivate students to think for themselves and plan for the future,” he says. “It’s always nice to be growing up with some nice mentor, if Openhouse can be that for them, I think we are doing our job well.”