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Bursting the EdTech Bubble: Why India Needs to Regulate the EdTech Sector

By Shivalika Singh

Abstract

The EdTech industry in India has been experiencing rapid growth in the past few years, fuelled by increased access to technology and digital literacy after the pandemic. While the industry has transformed learning and paved the way for a more blended form of learning in both online and offline mediums, the industry is breaking its bubble with a slew of new challenges. News headlines about misleading advertisements, unprecedented layoffs, and other ethical issues have raised serious questions about the exploitative nature of the EdTech industry in India. Furthermore, due to the absence of any clear policy framework, the industry appears unregulated, leading to an overall lack of accountability and transparency.

Current Framework

In an attempt to address the concerns raised by users and multiple stakeholders, leading EdTech companies like BYJUS, Vedantu, Unacademy, and several others have collaborated to form the Indian Edtech consortium. This self-regulatory body functions under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and aims to ensure an ethical code of conduct to promote a safe and secure learning experience. The consortium follows a two-tier mechanism as a form of grievance redressal system, which is as follows: Tier 1 consists of an internal process within the organisation with the help of its grievance officer, while Tier 2 involves an independent inquiry process. While this process may seem fair on the surface, there are still questions of impartiality and transparency that remain unanswered. In addition, in December 2021, the government issued an advisory against predatory practices that frequently trap parents and students in debt for courses that are often misrepresented in terms of quality and content. Notwithstanding that such measures are appreciable, the impact of such efforts is still constrained by the absence of any clear policy framework.

Legal Conundrum

One of the major legal issues surrounding these online learning platforms is the lack of clarity on consumer protection policies. In India, The Consumer Protection Act, 2019, governs consumer rights and aims to protect them from unfair and deceptive trade practices. While the act has expanded its scope by including e-commerce under its ambit, judicial pronouncements have shown a mixed approach towards recognising educational facilities under the purview of consumer protection laws. As per the act under Section 2(o), the term “service” means service of any description available to users and is not limited to just transportation, banking, financing, entertainment, etc. but does not include services offered free of charge or under a contract of personal service. In the case of P.T. Koshy & Anr. v. Ellen Charitable Trust & Ors. (2012), the Supreme Court held that education is not a commodity and that students cannot be classified as consumers. But later, in P. Sreenivasulu & Anr. vs. P.J. Alexander & Anr. (2015), the court held that educational institutions would come under the purview of the Consumer Protection Act and that education offered by them is a service covered under the act. Such instances are indicative of the judicial ambiguity surrounding the issue and further highlight the need for more clear regulations on the matter.

Data Protection and Privacy

Another important facet surrounding the regulation of EdTech services is the question of data protection and privacy. In July 2021, Whitehat Jr., a coding platform for children acquired by EdTech giant BYJU’s was accused of a sensitive data leak belonging to students, parents, and educators. Such occurrences have become quite common in the digital learning space and emphasise the need for stricter regulations on EdTech companies when managing student data. Edtech companies frequently collect and store sensitive data such as name, phone number, email, and other educational records to maintain student databases, but it is necessary to ensure that this data is stored securely and safely, protected from third-party access to avoid misuse that can range from harassing spam calls to extortion in some cases. Another significant factor is the user’s lack of consent to providing such information. While accessing multiple EdTech platforms, it can be observed that users are often required to agree to the terms and conditions without being adequately informed of the potential risks involved in sharing their data and that companies can easily amend their privacy policy without informing the user about the same. Such data breaches are a major source of concern because they directly affect the privacy of children and young adults, who are the primary users of these services. While companies claim that this data simplifies data analytics and algorithms for users, it also fosters a surveillance culture in which users have little control over the information that is being collected, stored, and used by companies. Further, as the recent Data Protection Bill (2022) is yet to be approved by the Indian Parliament, users have limited legal protection from potential privacy violations.

The Chinese model of regulation

The recent Chinese crackdown on the EdTech sector serves as an important case study for developing an EdTech policy for India, demonstrating how overly restrictive government control can be detrimental to both users and companies. While the Chinese model aimed to protect students from predatory practices in the EdTech sector that were highly profit-oriented, these regulations have not been successful in achieving their intended objectives. The overreaching power of the Chinese government in this sector has only served to stifle competition and innovation, which ultimately hinders the growth of the industry and impacts the quality of education provided to students.

Conclusion

As observed, it is the need of the hour to regulate the EdTech sector with a cohesive policy framework that strikes a balance between protecting the interests of users, and encouraging companies to innovate and expand in a safe environment. A policy like this could create an independent body, similar to CBSE and UGC, to regulate and standardise education quality. This can help in creating a more structured curriculum and ensuring reliable and trustworthy certification. Another important measure would be to create comprehensive data security guidelines, which should include measures like encryption, access control, and privacy protections. Finally, awareness-raising exercises should be carried out to ensure that parents and students are aware of the options for online learning as well as how to properly protect their data and personal information while doing so. 

About the Author

Shivalika Singh is a second year law student at Jindal Global Law School, and her interests revolve around public policy, law, and governance.

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