Tavleen Duggal’s foray into online teaching began with an Instagram ad.
For the 23-year-old computer science graduate, the prospect of working from home in Pune City and earning a salary by teaching kids code was attractive. She applied and moved through three rounds of remote interviews. A day later, Duggal began teaching at WhiteHat Jr, an online coding platform for children that has captured the attention of doting parents across the country.
In India, where after-school classes have long been the norm, platforms like WhiteHat Jr. are the latest way for Asian parents to give their kids a competitive advantage, and the industry is booming: Indian ed-tech startups had an influx of $2.2 billion in 2020 alone.
As these e-learning platforms scale, the demand for gig teachers — mostly women, the preferred gender for South Asian companies — has skyrocketed. In this freewheeling, nascent economy, some instructors only have to take a brief course before they begin teaching children. But with their growth, more and more gig teachers and parents are sounding alarms, begging the question: can you apply the Silicon Valley hyper-growth playbook to a child’s education?
On Duggal’s first day on the job, she was joined by two others: a doctor, and a fellow engineering graduate. Most teachers don’t come with a coding background, instead learning coding curriculum alongside their teaching schedules.
Teachers are given scripts to follow during class, and their payouts are tied to the number of conversions from free trial classes. Dugall described giving her first pitch, a scripted document she received from WhiteHat Jr, to a 13-year-old. “That first student did end up buying the course, so that gave me a little push,” she said.
As more after-school tuition centers move online, spurred further by the pandemic, it has ushered in a new type of worker: “teacherpreneurs” who tether themselves to platforms like WhiteHat Jr, Teacheron, and Lido Learning.
Nazia Aqeel, a middle school physics teacher and after-school tutor, has been a coding instructor at WhiteHat Jr for over a year. Aqeel said she’s seen a steady shift to online learning in her industry. “I had a few colleagues [in their] 50s and 60s,” said Aqeel, “once they retired, or once they didn’t want to work ‘offline,’ they resorted to sites like TeacherOn,” an online platform that connects students to tutors.
Aqeel, 28, who now spends up to four hours a day teaching on WhiteHat Jr, said she’d been looking for an online teaching platform like WhiteHat Jr since 2018. “Most [teachers] are into White Hat Jr. because of the time flexibility and earning potential,” said Aqeel. “And the best thing is connecting to the kids.”
While the market has made it easier for anyone to become a teacher, critics of this model say it prioritizes earnings over the learning.
On White Hat Jr, the fee structure for teachers is centered on minimum guaranteed payouts if a teacher opens 120 “slots” a month. “Slots opened” is corporate speak for the number of sessions or classes the teacher does in a day. The more slots, the higher the payouts. It’s not unlike Uber’s model, where drivers are incentivized to clock in more rides for a higher pay.
It’s these “slots opened” metrics that get celebrated the most during discussions on WhiteHat Jr internal groups, according to Dugall. “The lingo spoken to the teacher is, You can increase your earnings. You can increase your conversions,” said Dugall, who left WhiteHat Jr in September 2020 after concerns about the company’s priorities. Dugall said that one teacher she knew worked for 23 hours in a single day, while another teacher who was six months into her pregnancy clocked 22. “It is an unethical organization,” said Dugall. “[It] doesn’t care about quality. [It’s always] sales first.”
According to a White Hat Jr. series A fundraising document sent to Rest Of World by a source on the condition of anonymity, “non-tech background teachers with 10 hours of training” could start teaching beginner to intermediate levels. In the document, the company estimates there are 1.1 million female undergraduate students under the age of 35 in arts, commerce, education, and management who could teach on the platform across India. India has faced a shortage of a million qualified teachers in the last year.
In spite of their lack of training, White Hat Jr.’s slick online advertising campaigns continue to draw new customers. When seven-year-old Ronit saw one YouTube, “it triggered his curiosity,” said his father Sujoy Mazumdar. He enrolled Ronit in an eight-session introductory coding course.
The advertisement came at the tail end of a media blitz that began after e-learning giant Byju’s acquired the platform for $300 million in August last year; other advertisements featured pre-teens who had learned to code and had a chance to travel to Silicon Valley to meet scientists and entrepreneurs. Some of the ads featured a fictional character named Wolf Gupta, a White Hat Jr. alumnus who goes on to bag a six figure salary at Google. Several were removed after the Advertising Standard Council of India received complaints about misleading promotions.
The lofty visions of Silicon Valley success might be alluring to Indian parents, but the quality of White Hat Jr.’s classes tells a different story. After a few classes, Mazumdar observed Ronit struggling with the concepts — he was in kindergarten and had only just begun to grasp two and three digit numbers. “He just didn’t have enough learning yet to understand,” said Mazumdar.
But Mazumdar said he isn’t disappointed in the product; he saw the course as something akin to a “pricy nanny” that could engage Ronit for an hour every day during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
For educational psychologist Sreehari Ravindranath, though, the widespread adoption of e-learning platforms for after school tuition could pose problems, but it’s too soon to tell. “The aspect of scaling is where we dilute quality,” he said.
But Ravindranath said he can’t fault the platforms: “None of these commercial companies requested or begged you to actually join.” Ravindranath said if anything, the drive for parents to see their children as the next big app creator is more to blame.