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The unregulated industry of EdTech in India, can law save it?



Education technology, a term used to refer to the area of digital technology devoted to the development and application of tools intended to promote education. To break this down, we can think of EdTech as the use of tech in education.


In the recent years, there have been prominent progress in the Indian education sector, especially in relation to technological advancement. Mostly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ed-Tech industry played a major role in providing online learning to students, which if we observe was more effective and efficient than physical classrooms.


Just like the pandemic changed the face of most sectors, the education system has also found itself under the web of technology. When the epidemic put the entire world under a lockdown, students observed their education being tampered. But then things started looking bright for us when we moved towards adoption of technological tools, machines, AI tools and much more. Students now were able to access virtual sites for study, seek guidance from their peers and teachers, and attend online classes, webinars and interviews.


During the past years, especially during the COVID-19 phase, technology came as a savior for the education sector. At that time, our prime concern was to keep this sector afloat by using every possible measure. But now, we have entered the post COVID phase, things have started turning normal for us. Moreover, it has given birth to new norms such as remote working, remote learning and much more. The EdTech sector is growing rapidly, fueled by increased access to technology and digital literacy. While the industry is transforming, it also has new challenges looming over. Often we hear news headlines about misleading advertisements, unprecedented layoffs, and other ethical issues raising questions about the exploitative nature of the EdTech industry.


For any industry to work properly, it is important to have a clear set of regulations on how operations are to be held. As of now, the EdTech sector is missing this. Lack of transparency and accountability in the sector has led it fall prey to incidents mentioned above. Hence, it is important for us to introduce a clear and concise policy framework to regulate this industry.


The present concern of the Indian EdTech sector

  1. To address the concerns raised by multiple users and various stakeholders, on January 12th, 2022, announced the formation of the India EdTech Consortium (IEC), a self-regulatory body with leading edtech companies such as Byju’s, Simplilearn, Unacademy, upGrad, Vedantu and more as its core members. The IEC aims to ensure that every learner should have access to quality and affordable education, in order to improve their academic performance. The IEC has been established keeping consumer interest at the core. The edtech companies have committed to observe and adhere to a common ‘code of conduct’ and established a two-tier grievance redressal mechanism to ensure that the positive impact of the industry reaches every consumer while protecting their interests and rights. The IEC has several edtech entities as its members, including Byju’s, Careers 360, Classplus, Doubtnut, Great Learning, Harappa, Times Edutech & Events Limited, Scaler, Simplilearn, Toppr, Unacademy, upGrad, UNext Learning, Vedantu and WhiteHat Jr. The Indian edtech ecosystem comprises of over 500 million school students, college students as well as working professionals, which makes it important to follow a particular framework that will protect the rights of learners and the edtech companies. During the introduction of the IEC in 2022, Vamsi Krishna, co-founder and CEO of Vedantu, noted that the Indian edtech sector has grown considerably, especially during the last two years with funding and consolidations strengthening the ecosystem. With this, he also mentioned that, “However, while business growth is critical, so is consumer protection since this will allow students and parents to make more informed decisions about the future. Therefore, as part of the newly institutionalised IEC, we will build a sounder and more ethical ecosystem for students so that we can ensure their safety and mitigate any risks they may encounter in their journey to be future-ready.” But in all aspects, analysts have believed that even though the processes taken up by the IEC seem fair on the surface, there are still questions of impartiality and transparency which remain unanswered. For instance, in December 2021, the government issued an advisory against predatory practices which trap parents and students in debt for courses, which are often misrepresented in terms of quality as well as content.

  2. Another legal issue which online learning platforms raise is the lack of clarity on consumer protection policies. India enacted the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 to deal with matters relating to violation of consumer’s rights, unfair trade practices, misleading advertisements, and all those circumstances which are prejudicial to the consumer’s rights. The parliament intended to include provision for e-consumers in the 2019 act, due to the development of technology and increase in practice of buying and selling of goods and services online. Even though the Consumer Protection Act,2019 expanded its scope when it made inclusion of e-commerce, judicial pronouncements have still shown a mixed approach towards recognising educational facilities under the purview of consumer protection law. If we observe Section 2 (o) of the act, the term ‘service’ means service of any description available to users and not just transportation, banking, etc. The confusion to whether education can be considered a commodity or not had aroused earlier too. In the case of P.T. Koshy & Anr. Vs. Ellen Charitable Trust & Ors., 2012 (3) CPC 615 (SC), the Supreme Court had held that students are not ‘Consumers’ and ‘Education’ is not a commodity and that Educational Institutions are not rendering ‘Service’. However, few years later, in case of P. Sreenivasulu & Anr. Vs. P. J. Alexander & Anr., the Hon’ble Supreme Court has clearly laid down that Educational Institutions would come within the purview of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 and that Education is a Service. Such instances are a clear indication of confusion among the judicial system, clearly directing the need for a clear regulation on the matter.

  3. Where technology is mentioned, the aspect of data protection and privacy is always brought along. In July 2021, Whitehat Jr., a coding platform for children, was accused of a sensitive data leak. The details about the unsecured database were visible on Shodan.com which maintains a database of unsecured servers. Salseken.ai, which handles the data of the Byju’s acquired Whitehat Jr., had its password left exposed, as a result of which, details such as names and classes taken by students and email addresses and phone numbers of parents and teachers were left exposed in public. The unsecured server also exposed personal and other sensitive data such as chat logs between parents and Whitehat Jr. staff, feedback commentary written by teachers about their students. It has already been observed that the global pandemic has made Indian companies much more vulnerable to cyberattacks and data breaches. Occurrences of cyberattacks has become common in digital learning space, emphasizing the need for a stricter regulation on EdTech companies.

 

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