Divya Gokulnath and her husband Byju Raveendran — the founders of Byju’s — have put India on the map when it comes to edtech companies.
They started Byju’s in 2011 with humble roots. Now they have more than 30,000 people working for them..
I caught up with Gokulnath at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, after she gave a talk on the main stage about education, technology and new approaches to learning opened by AI.
Raveendran used to teach math offline to 25,000 students at a time in a big stadium in Bangalore, and both founders believed that digital learning could be so much more efficient. They launched their online learning products for high school students in 2015, and now they’ve taken the offline products to online learning via Osmo. In 2018, Byju’s became India’s first edtech unicorn. During the pandemic, the company had challenges with accounting issues and layoffs.
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Now the company is all-in on digital edtech games. Gokulnath said is a fan of virtual reality games which can increase engagement and visually teach kids principles about math when other methods don’t sink in. But she also sees the limits and costs of technology as a barrier that can stand in the way of progress.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What did you talk about on the main stage?
Divya Gokulnath: We spoke about what does it take to build a unicorn. I was also talking about AI and education. You cannot talk about edtech without talking about AI and ChatGBT4 and what it can do for you and how it can make learning better.
GamesBeat: And how you can cheat on tests with it.
Gokulnath: That’s the first thing that everybody thinks about. But we’ve changed that to how you can learn better, but using it for what you should use it for and not what you can compromise learning for, which is cheating. Which is why, you know, I think the reason is because we’ve always learned in the right way. And answers used to be just what, not just why and how minute we change it to that. This question of copying and giving the answers just doesn’t arise anymore.
GamesBeat: And what was your unicorn answer? How do you become a unicorn?
Gokulnath: You know, I don’t think there is an answer to that. I feel it has more to do with the trait of personality of wanting to leave a positive impact. Wanting to create value, wanting to leave behind a lasting legacy than it has to wanting to chase a valuation number. Right. That’s all a byproduct of the impact that you create. So you it’s chasing that is anyway, not what gets you there. And most successful unicorns have always been about creating value, not creating valuation.
GamesBeat: So when we talked more before, it was about expanding into the U.S. market a lot, right? Where are you guys now as far as like, what your priority is?
Gokulnath: Going steady. So if you look at Epic, it’s 90% of the school. Osmo has launched new products called Reading Adventure. We have about 35,000 shipments as we speak. Children are loving it. They’re learning how to read. So the focus is on early reading, early coding, early writing and learning math at an early age. So we’ve created some math based learning games for young children using the Baidu pedagogy and the Osmos tangible play construct. So we are experimenting a lot with how we create an
impact early on children, but it’s not rocket ship growth. Taking it steady. We are going to the right markets and we are taking it easy.
GamesBeat: And then where are we now? And the parents either love or hate games?
Gokulnath: Parents, as long as it’s learning games, we see they’re okay. As long as it’s delivering learning outcomes, we see it’s okay. And the pandemic changed that for us, right? Because prior to the pandemic, parents were like, how can you even learn online? But because of the pandemic, they saw that when teachers entered their homes for the first time, we started to respect teachers much more. And we started understanding how online learning can be a part of mainstream education.
GamesBeat: And then did that pandemic cause you guys to go in a particular direction faster, or?
Gokulnath: I would say it went like this. It made us grow bigger, but then we also learned how to maintain that scale by reducing costs. So over the last year, we’ve pivoted very consciously towards growth with profitability. Even if it means steadier growth, it also means better margins because we want to be self-sustainable in the long term. So for the past 16 years, we’ve started, the first eight years we were offline, we were profitable, 80% margins.
Then we went completely online, which is a huge investment in R&D, in tech investment to scale, investment in marketing. And since last year, we’ve pivoted towards a more stable, steady, profitable, driven, profitability driven.
GamesBeat: And do you feel the world is near some of the goals you want to hit when it comes to education?
Gokulnath: The thing with us is we keep very high benchmarks and the minute we are about to reach it, we up it again. Just to give you an example, with our not-for-profit initiative, for Education for All, we said, okay, let’s reach 1 million underprivileged kids by 2025. We did it by 2022. So now the mission is 10 million by 2025. We’ve touched five and a half million so far. Similarly with tech and AI, we’ve always been runners ready to experiment. So yes we see tech making a huge impact in our content to make it scale. We feel we are closer to our mission of making, learning personalized, making students love learning, making learning effective. But we still have a long way to go.
GamesBeat: And what are some of the big numbers you have now in terms of employees? Are there other things that are nice Milestones?
Gokulnath: The biggest number for me is engagement. 71 plus minutes on an average, learning outcomes, even children from the underserved communities have seen a six and a half percent increase in grades. It’s double that in the entire one, entire twos.
We see good engagement. We see in spite of cutting down on our branding costs almost completely, we see a hundred plus million students on our platforms every month. So these are the numbers which help us understand that we’re on the right path. We are looking at the right metrics.
GamesBeat: And how many people are there now in the company?
Gokulnath: So all together we’ll be around 30,000. It’s still big. Very big.
GamesBeat: I can’t remember what it was the last time we talked. It wasn’t that big. I’m curious whether technology is bringing anything that you think has helped learning. I mean, you did mention AI, but are there developments you see that make you think that we’re on the right path with the tech?
Gokulnath: See, for us, tech has always been the enabler. All along education has been the, I would put it in very simple words, the bride. Technology has been the bridesmaid. Directing the attention and ensuring the right content, the right delivery of this beautiful content. So technology one in 2015 helped us scale, helped us personalize.
But in 2022, it’s helping us create a unique journey for every student. It’s helping us audit teachers to a level like never before. If I had that tool when I was starting my teaching, I would’ve been a much better teacher much faster. Because It can audit and give you clear feedback on how you can do better. It’s removed a lot of the routine work that teachers have to do and helps teachers focus on better tasks. Right?
And like this, but really, are we feeling are, or should we feel challenged by AI? My answer is no. Because one thing that AI cannot take away from humans is that AI thinks within the box. Humans think outside the box, Right? So, just to give you an example, there was a naughty child, a very sweet one in an online class, who switched off the video and labeled himself as trying to connect dot, dot, dot. Okay.
So only a human can think like this, right? Think outside the box. So it’s very sweet. And that’s something that AI can never take because the AI will play by the rules you give it. So I see that more at best as an
assistant to a tutor, as someone who can make learning more effective so that the teacher can now focus on the main job. They have to be facilitators, they have to be mentors, they have to be guides, all of that.
GamesBeat: I remembered writing a story about one woman who started a company to teach calculus to kids in VR. And she said it made sense because your comparison to a textbook trying to
explain these 3D visualization things to students, and it’s almost impossible for them to absorb it. Whereas if you just sort of show it to them in a VR setting and visualization is there in front of their face, then it’s just so much more engaging and it works. And I wonder how far that idea goes. Like, does it mean that anything that’s visualized with technology is going to help people?
Gokulnath: Hundred percent. Hundred percent. But the issue with AR and VR, it’s cumbersome to scale. Why is it that AI has so much traction today? AR and VR was the go-to thing just before AI, right? But it did not scale or it was not adopted. Anything that’s adopted as scale is something that will succeed. But the problem with AR and VR and the headset is A, you can’t spend more than 20 minutes on it. B, it is extremely expensive.
But it is very effective. So the 20 minutes of learning visually now for the environment, you’re going to learn calculus like you’ve never learned before. But how many schools can make that investment? How much time can a child spend? Is 20 minutes enough?
GamesBeat: So it becomes a much tougher task. And then what are things you get excited about in terms of new ways people find to teach. A good piece of software may be underappreciated. I don’t know, something like SimCity?
Gokulnath: My son has convinced me to put him in an after-school voluntary class for Sim City because it teaches him economics. It teaches him how to build a city. It teaches him so many skills. So I said, okay. You know, because through that game, you’re learning. So when I had to look at it, it teaches you a lot of things which you will experience in real life and you’ll pick up while you’re having fun playing it. So I mean, maybe I’m a rare parent, but I hear that the class is full. I hear that there are a lot of parents who are okay with their kids learning the concept of money, the concept of change for a 10 year old learning those concepts right, is very important.
GamesBeat: Do you think parents are coming around to video games?
Gokulnath: Yes. They’re coming to accept it. They know that there’s no escape from it. They’re coming to accept it. It’s like television nowadays, right? You can’t escape television. It’s there. You might as well use it to give you the right content. So it’s the same with tech. So when we have something learning, when you
have something which is game based, but giving you some sort of value for your time, parents are, they are not okay with kids quote “wasting” their time on random stuff.
GamesBeat: Why are you still doing this?
Gokulnath: Because I love it. Because for me, there was a question: how many, what are you winning, right? I said, for me, every student is a win. Every student’s learning outcome is a win. I have 150 million wins. I may have losses, but it’s nothing compared to the kind of impact, the purpose, the five and a half million kids who are learning for free, they would’ve never learned in their life. Now, tomorrow they are going to go make a career, become a doctor, and bring up their families and bring up their villages.
That for me, is impactful. That’s too big a and no challenge can stand in the way.
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