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Shikho Launches Offline Experience Center, Strategic Pragmatism and Emerging Edtech Models

In an interesting strategic move, edtech startup Shikho announced that it has opened its first offline Exam and Experience Center in Dhaka's Farmgate area. The move comes amid a growing trend where digital players are increasingly eyeing omnichannel play. For Shikho, the move is expected to help bridge the digital-physical divide that remains a major challenge for edtech players in Bangladesh and across many emerging markets, gain user trust, and achieve eventual mainstream adoption. 

Farmgate is ground zero for Bangladesh's shadow education, with students flocking from across the country to access supplementary academic support at the numerous coaching centers located there. By opening a physical center there, Shikho aims to marry Shikho's strengths in digital pedagogy with a tangible experience that makes edtech real for students and parents alike. The center will be physical touch point for Shikho services where students and parents will have opportunity to experience Shikho’s “feature-rich learning app and web portal” and students will be able to “participate in physical exams in an invigilated environment”. The company says it has plans to open more of these centers across the country. 

Announcing the move Shikho founder and CEO Shahir Chodhury wrote on LinkedIn

“Today, we are incredibly excited to launch the very first Shikho Exam and Experience Center in the heart of Dhaka's Farmgate. For the uninitiated, Farmgate is the test-preparation hub of Bangladesh, where families send aspiring learners from all over the country so they can have the best chances for success. 

Our offline centers will complement the unique comprehensive suite of digital learning services we already offer. Alongside access to our feature-rich learning app and web portal, students will now have the ability to participate in physical exams in an invigilated environment, giving them the best of both worlds. These centers will also help demystify the power and potential of online learning, as students and guardians will be able to visit and have full access to the premium courses on phones, tablets, and laptops with direction and guidance from Shikho personnel at the Experience Zones. We are starting at ground zero, but with a student base spread across all 64 districts, we have plans to launch these state-of-the-art centers all across Bangladesh!”

A Pragmatic Strategic Move 

This is a pragmatic strategic move given the nature of the education market in Bangladesh. While edtech has an excellent awareness in the country, the pure edtech penetration has a ceiling. Digital divide, dominance of offline education, and parents and students preference for in-person coaching and tutoring are some of the reasons behind this. 

We have written about this conundrum before in the state of edtech in Bangladesh: 

“The digital divide is going to be another big challenge for the edtech companies that want to scale. For convenience, you can divide the Bangladesh edtech market into two: students and parents who live in urban centers and already have access to the best quality teachers and education; and students who live in suburban and rural areas. Urban students have all the access. Many parents would be hard-pressed to pay for an online service when they can access dedicated teachers offline and other benefits that better meet the needs of holistic education for their kids. Regardless, many students and parents are already using, and many others would like to use, an online education service for complementary learning. But it is also true that the competition for these students is high and it is a small market. TEAM and business models are unlikely to work if an edtech company only relies on urban students. 

On the other hand, suburban and rural students, the main target as per the narrative of the many edtech companies, remain hard to reach. Yes, internet and smartphone penetration has been growing in Bangladesh. If you use Facebook user data as a proxy for real internet users, it shows an excellent number. But online learning penetration remains dismal for rural students. Moreover, the perception challenge that edtech startups face in urban centers is a hundred times harder in rural areas. A recently published Education Watch Report 2020-21 by Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) suggests that various distance learning initiatives by the government for K-12 students amid the pandemic were largely ineffective for various reasons including a lack of devices. 

As you could see, many students in suburban and rural areas don't have access to data or devices to access online education. Moreover, mobile data remains of poor quality and expensive. One founder of a K-12-focused edtech startup tells us that students often count the price of mobile data along with the price of the course which makes the course quite expensive. Edtech companies will have to find ways to deal with these challenges.”

This much is apparent in current parents and students behavior. For the typical Bangladeshi students, the conventional path to academic success has long involved supplementing school classes with private tutoring and coaching centers. 

While many of these students and parents do consider online learning as interesting and useful, they hardly see it as an alternative for offline ones. In fact, many consider smartphone based online education can potentially be harmful for the attention span and other behavior of their kids. 

The offline centers can help Shikho overcome some of these limitations. These centers can become important channels for its market education and growth. The company can also turn them into hybrid coaching centers if it sees such a strategic move makes sense in the future. 

The company rightly identifies that while it has built meaningful traction with its online platform, further melding the online and offline realms could unlock even greater potential for the company.

In business and life, strategic pragmatism can be the difference between life and death. 

Unbundling and Re-bundling

Much of the disruption we've seen in consumer technology over the past decade can be characterized as an unbundling of integrated experiences that had long been bundled together out of necessity. Streaming unbundled entertainment from linear television packages. Ride-sharing apps like Uber unbundled transportation from private vehicle ownership. 

In education too, we are amidst a great unbundling as edtech startups have made quality instruction accessible online. Yet as the sector has advanced, it's become clear that the convenience of remote learning alone is insufficient to fully meet customer needs.

What we're seeing with Shikho's Experience Center is actually a re-bundling—pulling together the advantages of online and offline. Allowing invigilated exams confers credibility that remote assessment lacks. Moreover, offering a hands-on exploratory space for young learners and their parents to experience Shikho's platform first-hand diminishes the opaqueness of the "black box" technological solution. 

Predicting the future is a fool's errand, but the existing edtech model might not hold in markets like Bangladesh. Edtech players might be forced to offer something beyond fragmented digital and physical alternatives. To that end, this experiment by Shikho can offer meaningful learning not only for Shikho but also for other edtech players with similar ambitions in Bangladesh. 

Building Edtech Ground-Up 

A consistent theme we see from successful startups is solutions being purpose-built for the unique needs and contexts of the markets they emerge from. Having an understanding of the on-the-ground challenges is indispensable.

While the opportunity to access high quality teaching, that edtech players claim to offer, for a fraction of coaching costs might sound appealing to a digital native, for parents and students it might not sound the same. Digital-only education doesn’t really sound real in many instances. 

This is why meaningful edtech success at scale will require first principle thinking and building from ground up with the feedback from the market. 

And this is why Shikho’s move to embedding physical Centers into communities makes for an interesting experiment. The move opens a new scale potential for the company. Moreover, it should allow Shikho to gain a much better vantage into the practical pain points of its target users and the real challenges of edtech in Bangladesh. And if the approach bears fruit, Shikho may ultimately offer an interesting approach for delivering educational experiences—a blend of the virtual and real. At the same time, merging physical and online experiences can help Shikho build formidable competitive barriers.

Considerations Ahead 

The move also comes with meaningful challenges for Shikho. Being a digital player, Shikho operates on a different cost structure and operational dynamics. Customers expect a certain kind of price structure from the company. 

Compared to that, offline is an entirely different realm. Maintaining offline centers would mean significant investment. Unless these centers help Shikho significantly improve its ROI, they can become a costly strategic burden for the company. 

That being said, any major strategic move comes with meaningful uncertainties and this applies to Shikho as well. In the past, Shikho has shown a willingness to take pragmatic risks and change strategy when something is not working. The company ran and abandoned a series of experiments and initiatives. How Shikho tackles eventual uncertainties regarding its offline operation will determine its success with this offline initiative. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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