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The government has issued an advisory to citizens regarding the use of caution against ed-tech companies which enable online and remote learning. The offer of free services which are promised by some companies has to be carefully evaluated, the Ministry of Education stated in the notification issued on Thursday. It also urged parents, students, and all stakeholders in school education to be cautious while deciding on opting for online content and coaching through ed-tech companies in the country.
The Ministry of Education said that it had come to the notice of the Department of School Education and Literacy that some ed-tech companies were luring parents in the garb of offering free services and getting the Electronic Fund Transfer (EFT) mandate signed or activating the auto-debit feature, especially targeting vulnerable families.
It urged the citizens to avoid automatic debit option for payment of subscription fee and advised them to read the terms and conditions before acknowledging any acceptance of learning software or device.
“Some ed-tech companies may offer the Free-Premium business model where a lot of their services might seem to be free at first glance but to gain continuous learning access, students have to opt for a paid subscription,” the education ministry said.
Stakeholders are advised to ask for tax invoice statements when purchasing educational devices loaded with content or apps designed to offer online learning. The ministry also recommended a detailed background check of ed-tech companies and verify their content quality before subscribing to their service.
Additionally, the advisory cautioned parents to clarify doubts and questions regarding payments and content before signing up for their child's learning in any ed-tech company.
“Activate parental controls and safety features on the device or in the app or browser as it helps restrict access to certain content and limit spending on app purchases,” the ministry noted.
Parents are also advised to help their child understand features and marketing strategies by education apps that are being used to encourage more spending. Further, the ministry recommended users to look for student and parent reviews online about the particular ed-tech company before signing up. It also advised them to provide their suggestions and reviews that may help others.
“Record the evidence of spam calls/ forced signup for any education packages without complete consent for filing a grievance,” the advisory said.
The education ministry also advised citizens to go through the child safety guidelines mentioned in its PRAGYATA guidelines before using any ed-tech platform.
In addition to the recommendations, the advisory included a list of practices that it recommended citizens must not consider while signing up for an online learning service. These are as follows:
The advisory also noted that citizens who are consumers of ed-tech services are protected by the legal provisions meant for e-commerce firms.
“It is very much evident that the ed-tech companies which may be considered e-commerce entities have to comply with the Rules to prevent any untoward liability in the future and need to establish a dedicated mechanism in place to check for compliance with the law,” the education ministry said.
It also mentioned that educational institutions including ed-tech companies and programs should comply with the general rules of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) Code for Self-Regulation in advertising and guidelines given below:
The ministry also recommended free e-learning contents, textbooks, and digital labs offered under government initiatives that citizens may explore before purchasing an online content.
Interestingly, the advisory by the government comes months after reports suggested lucrative behaviour of ed-tech companies including Byju's in which parents and students are allegedly targeted to pay for online content that they couldn't even afford. The issue was brought into notice last year by IIT alumnus Pradeep Poonia, though he had faced a lawsuit from WhiteHat Jr. for purportedly exposing its concerning behaviour.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped push online learning as traditional institutions including schools and colleges were not physically active for quite some time. That growth has ultimately expanded for ed-tech companies in India and around the world.