Skoolbx is an exciting addition to our children’s education ecosystem

A lot has changed in the education space in India since I was in school. That’s 35 years of accumulated change across the spectrum: Government policy, curricula, teaching methods, educational material, mode of delivery, education goals, aspirations, parents’ involvement, educational technology, the fortunes of private schools, among many other aspects.

You know what has not changed? The scarcity of good teachers, the difficulty of students to get an education that imparts skills as opposed to cursory knowledge, and the need for parents to invest in tuition classes.

The most recent published government statistics that I could find was the 2020-21 report on UDISE+ (Unified District Information System for Education Plus). According to the report, there were 1,509,136 schools in India as of the end of FY 2020-21. That’s a little over 1.5 million schools across the nation. The most interesting stat for me was the PTR or Pupil to Teacher Ratio. It ranges from 18-1 (Upper Primary and Secondary) to 26-1 (Primary and Higher Secondary).

Stats on number of schools in India by management type according to UDISE+ 2020-21 report

In terms of education delivered, it’s honestly difficult to pick the difference between a government and the average private school. In terms of skills imparted and employability, even international schools are struggling to adapt. The gateway to entrepreneurial or quality higher education eventually depends on the resources of the parents. This well acknowledged gap in school education has created a tremendous market for private tutors, EdTech and other education augmentation businesses.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021 report by Pratham Foundation, 39.5% students in government schools and 38.2% students in private schools opted for additional paid private tuitions to augment their learning in 2021. That means close to 40% of students in India are forced to depend mainly on private tutors and EdTech to meet their lifeskill and academic goals. 

As parents we look for a PTR of 1-1 when it comes to deep skill development, a PTR range of 5-1 when it comes to development of collaboration and social learning competencies, and a PTR of 10-1 or more when it comes to focused development of leadership and entrepreneurial competencies, usually in a sporting, performance art or technical environment – never in an academic or curricula-driven atmosphere since it is a fallacy that one can develop leadership with a pure process-driven, cognitive approach.

A combination of the 1-0 (self-study) or 1-1 is the best-fit model for acquisition of deep learning while the 1-0 model is unique in its efficiency in building critical thinking competencies.

There are many figures floating around from market researchers on the matter of the market size of the Indian education ecosystem. There are figures for the entire schooling market, figures for the education technology market, for the education assessment market, the education coaching market, the private tuition market, among other segments. 

The online tutoring market is forecasted to grow to 201 billion USD by 2026 according to a report related in May 2022 by Research and Markets. Meanwhile, Technavio released a report in January 2022 which predicts that the Indian online tutoring market will hit 14.6 billion USD by 2025. IBEF (Indian Brand Equity Foundation) estimates that the broader education market in India was valued at 117 billion USD in 2020, and expects it to reach a valuation of 220 billion USD by 2025. IBEF has also projected a valuation of 4 billion USD for the EdTech segment of the education market by 2025. Interestingly, since 2020, India has seen the four EdTech companies become unicorns (Vedantu, Unacademy, Upgrad and Eruditus) and one has gone on to become a decacorn (BYJU’s).

What is interesting as usual is that none of the valuations or metrics represent the delivery of a successful education, which means all the data is meaningless for a parent trying to decide what is a good-fit for their children. The truth is that every parent has to construct their own education ecosystem for their family. Rankings, market valuations, reviews and popularity do not guarantee that a particular solution will work for your child.

Every parent has to construct their own education ecosystem for children;
Illustration by Upamanyu Mukherjee

I have been professionally evaluating education, learning and training methods, products and service providers for close to 30 years. In addition, I have been using such products and services as a parent for 15 years now. There are several platforms we have whetted as a family (the children participate and evaluate what works for them, what doesn’t as well). We employ a combination of subject mentors, platforms, formal school, trainers, self-study, and apprenticeship projects. The school plays an important role in the overall scheme but we decided early not to burden them with expectations mainly because we accepted that teachers are unable to help the children achieve concrete long-term learning, even in their specific subjects. This is because all school teachers don’t have the energy to connect with every child due to the number of children they manage and the administrative tasks they are burdened with by school managements. This makes subject mentors critical.

Thankfully we have quite a few subject mentors in our network, especially for Mathematics, Physics, History, Communication, Music and Design but that model is constrained by availability since all the mentors are full time professionals. The model works perfectly for older children or children who have a natural discipline for self-study. But we are always searching for subject tutors who are mentors at heart. I have always been dead against private tuitions from school teachers since the premise is quite simple: we are already paying hefty fees to the school and if they can’t do the job in the classroom, there is no reason to believe they can do it outside of the class. Plus it’s just an unethical practice in my book. 

There is a plethora of tuition and subject video tutorial platforms, but they don’t always work because of lack of subject expertise or personalised attention or run-time engagement – we are never looking for the children to clear exams, but for them to develop love for the subject and be on the path of mastery. In the absence of dependable mentors, my wife and I (like many other parents) have been sharing the different subjects between us.

For our eldest, we adopted a combination of self-study, coaching for sports, apprentice projects, and edX for long-term competency building and professional qualification in his chosen field (design). We have been using edX since 2017. A pioneer in the MOOC space since 2012, edX was launched as a joint venture by Harvard and MIT. In 2021 it was acquired by 2U for 800 million USD. So far, they have stuck to the original vision and made it better, so we are still using the platform for qualifications.

Our search for a dependable mentor network for the younger kids finally ended in January 2022 when my wife decided we should seek guidance from Hubert D’Mello.

Hubert and his wife have three boys of school-going ages. Earlier this week, the eldest secured an aggregate 75.8% in his 10th board exams. He will now go to a formal college to pursue financial accounting. The younger boys are in primary and secondary years. 

What is unique about their education is that Hubert is their teacher: the family opted for home-schooling when the eldest was very young, because they wanted to instil independent thought process, decision making, and responsibility towards learning as a lifelong skill. If you meet the children, it’s an educational approach that sells itself.

Our second child, Mr D, has had an indifferent journey with teachers and academics. A natural communicator, he has the gift of the gab and uses his boundless curiosity to ask questions by the dozen in his quest for understanding. Questions require answers and teachers tire very quickly since they don’t have the bandwidth to go deeper than the lesson warrants. In school, that means he has no real motivation since the system doesn’t allow him to go deep into the subject. 

His motivation levels are different when he is in his passion subject: programming. He started with classes on WhiteHatJr where he had a very good set of teachers who took to his personality and explored the science and maths and social sciences involved while developing games and apps on the platform. WhiteHatJr as a coding platform was in its early stages then and if you found a best-fit teacher and the child connected, it was going to be a great journey. But that was before the company added gamification and before they launched maths, science and other offerings as they scaled up and before it was acquired by BYJU’s for 300 million USD in 2020. When they parted company with the particular teacher, we parted ways with the platform. This was because while the platform is 1-1, their model is not based on expert tutors but separation between curricula and trained subject facilitators, which means the tutors are not career teachers or educators or subject matter experts per se. That was the main reason why we never opted for their subject tuitions. 

But academic life for Mr D changed after he connected with Hubert on Skoolbx. It’s been five months since he has been learning with Hubert and he has discovered his interest for both Maths and Science. The credit goes to Hubert who is clear about his goal: to help the child explore and learn the subject and therefore improve exam results over time, even if it means taking time to wander around the subject and discuss the weather, games and what’s happening in the house. The freedom to be himself has helped Mr D establish a bond with the subject and the mentor.

And that is what Hubert brings to the life of a student – patience, understanding, discipline and a sound method to build a deep foundation for the subject. Soon enough, the results also start flowing in. In the case of Mr D, his performance has improved in Maths and Science from the previous term, but the biggest win is that he looks forward to his school classes and also to talking about the learning in school with Hubert: he has a true learning buddy who is also an expert. 

Homeschooling his own children (still does) was not how Hubert started tutoring. He secured his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in 1996 from St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bengaluru. In 1999, he began tutoring high school children. Subsequently, he built on his passion for education by consulting as subject matter expert with a range of well-known online tutoring firms, also specialising as an assessment test creator. Apart from his consulting schedule, Hubert continued to tutor students daily from 3.30 to 8.30 AM and from 8.30 to 10.30 PM apart from devoting 12-14 hours every Saturday and Sunday. He has taught students from over 70 countries across six continents.

In November 2020, Hubert co-founded Skoolbx as an online platform for 1-on-1 expert tutoring. The Bengaluru-based company’s unique proposition is to match students to the right tutors. That’s a vision that has quality inbuilt within it. And the reason why Mr D is taking classes with Hubert is that their personalities and temperament match.

Bengaluru-based Skoolbx is a unique personality-match online tutoring startup co-founded by Hubert D’Mello, Mayur Hoskote and Kailash Gupta in November 2020

Hubert explains it rather well. “Skoolbx has three pillars: the student, the tutor and the parent. The three pillars have to interact as often or as infrequently as essential to the development of the child. That’s why we have a unique WhatsApp group for each child. We do not impose our own curriculum but we follow the curriculum of the school that the child is studying in. Every child is different and learns at a different pace, responds to different stimuli. Our focus is on developing an understanding of the subject but we work in parallel to the flow of syllabus and prepare for assessments as per the school schedule, even formative assessments since we can discuss that with the child.” Parent’s expectations are real and this approach enables them to assess the tutor’s performance in nurturing the child’s academic performance. 

Skoolbx has developed its unique Personality Matching method in collaboration with their Ohio-based Academic Advisor Karthik Vishwanath (who is part of the management team), and is currently performing initial tests of the technology algorithm on their platform. Karthik Vishwanath has a BSc Physics Honours from St Joseph’s Bengaluru, an MS from the department of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College and a PhD in Applied Physics from The University of Michigan. An Associate Professor at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and active researcher in biomedical optics, Karthik guides and advises Skoolbx on design of tutor practices.

Skoolbx co-founder and CEO Hubert D’Mello believes that it is essential that the temperament and personalities of the student and tutor to match for education to be effective and enjoyable.

The Skoolbx management team in fact is an eclectic combination of individuals who have followed their own passion all along. Co-founders Mayur Hoskote and Kailash Gupta (who have business partners for two decades) are good friends and have known Hubert since they were youngsters. Mayur, who is the Chief of Administration & PR, is an engineer by educational background and started his career as an Education Content Consultant with IT training companies and coaching classes. In 2003 he fulfilled his dream of starting his own restaurant, with friend and associate Kailash. Since then the two have progressed to managing multiple franchise outlets across Bangalore and Chennai. Mayur has honed his operations acumen by planning menus, organising training for chefs and staff and implementing SOPs for operations.

Kailash who is head of Business Development & Marketing), is a science graduate with a major in computers and management. He started his career with an IT firm initially as a web design consultant and trainer. He soon moved into marketing and business development and was appointed Business Development Manager during the growth years of the company, which grew from a 4 person to a 60 plus organisation within a period of 2 years. Kailash joined Mayur as an investor and Business partner to venture into the restaurant business, and they have continued to grow together in this field. He also continued as an independent consultant in the IT industry and has been responsible for launching several websites and for managing software development projects for companies in the US, UK and Australia.

The team has a solid mentor in Deepak Mittal (former Business Head with TCS), an innovative CTO in Diwakar BS (comes with 20 years of IT experience including technical architect of multiple platforms), and Virtual CFO Tapan Das (two decades of corporate finance and M&A experience).

In his capacity as CEO and Education Head, Hubert and his team are working on two fronts: To provide students with a student-centric learning environment and to build a community of nurturing tutors by providing them with predictable income and an opportunity to participate in the fortunes of a successful startup. Hubert handpicks tutors to ensure that everyone is aligned to the philosophy of nurturing students and also trains them to align with the philosophy. 

Skoolbx offers tutoring for Grades 1 to 12 and for curriculum of CBSE, ICSE, IB, and IGCSE. The start-up also provides assessment preparation tutorials for K12, John Hopkins School and College Ability Test (SCAT), Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT), Standardised Admission Test (SAT), Preliminary SAT, and American College Testing (ACT).

The company currently has 14 active tutors and a further 12 trained and ready for the foray into international markets. While the platform is adding students regularly, they are focused on their intent to be a profitable business that gives back to society and expand its footprint to other markets. Towards that end, the platform recently signed an interesting partnership agreement in Ghana.

As a parent, I find that I can depend on the tutors of Skoolbx, just as I have depended on edX. As an education and learning technology industry person, I find Skoolbx fascinating. They are approaching the critical Lakshman rekha when they will face the eternal dilemma of every edu tech company: To dilute or not to dilute their core philosophy, in order to achieve the business scale that will attract VCs and PE investors. I have spent long hours talking to Hubert, Mayur and Kailash and asked the question over and over and in different ways. What struck me is that they consider the separation of roles and the CEO’s philosophy as a holy thing. I believe they will be able to resist the temptation or investor pressure to dilute the 1-to-1 model or move to the ineffective curriculum design driven tutoring model adopted by most platforms to address the scalability requirement. 

The forecasted 201 billion USD by 2025 for the global online tutoring market is expected to be driven by Artificial Intelligence, Adaptive, Personalised Learning. Skoolbx’s investment in building their Personality Matching algorithm and commitment to its student-tutor match model ticks many of the meaningful boxes from a future growth perspective and also from a parent and student viewpoint. 

At the end of the day, our confidence as parents comes from the fact that the Founder-CEO has backed his model and raised his own kids on the same model. That’s a trust level that investor-funded marketing campaigns and customer service promises cannot buy.

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