Publishing industry played a stellar role in bringing education to masses!

Monica Malhotra Kandhari, Managing Director, MBD Group shares her views on the current status of K-12 publishing in India, which was majorly hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Excerpts.

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Now almost a year after the pandemic struck, our economy is coming back to normal in a slow and steady manner. The lockdown and restrictions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a huge impact on the publishing industry, like most other industries. All About Book Publishing spoke to Monica Malhotra Kandhari, Managing Director, MBD Group on the status of the K-12 publishing industry and here is what she says.

AABP: What are the changes you have witnessed in the market post Covid 19?

Monica: The pandemic has forced students to study at home; schools have been compelled to fast-track the adoption of e-learning technologies to remain in touch with their students. Consumption of online content has increased drastically during this period and many publishers have made available their online resources for free to students. As one of the pioneers of EdTech in India, MBD Group too came to the rescue of learners by offering its resources to the learning and teaching community free of cost. Around 1500+ e-books along with 8000+ digital resources covering all subjects and concepts as per NCERT and State Board guidelines for grades 1 to 12 were made available to students.

The major challenge was of a large number of students not being able to access online content due in part to lack of devices, connectivity issues or generally not being abreast with technology. With schools opening in a phased manner pan India, we are seeing an increased dependence on digital learning aids in this hybrid model of learning.

The pandemic has also affected the demand and supply of books. The lockdown rekindled the love of reading, and people are now buying books. With schools reopening gradually, the demand for books is increasing but is erratic at the moment and predicting market demand is difficult. Publishers have had to resort to short-term budgeting for the coming year due to volatility in the demand for books.

AABP: What steps would you be taking as a part of the recovery phase with regard to market demand and fulfilment, revenue generation, distribution and retail?

Monica: At the moment, market is uncertain in terms of demand. We are seeing an increased demand for exam-oriented materials and books for grades 9 to 12. But a lot of private schools are still closed and students are not going to school so the demand for notebooks and textbooks in general has gone down. We anticipate the demand for both textbooks and notebooks to increase gradually with the complete reopening of schools.

The price of raw materials used for printing has also gone up. Raw material providers are also facing challenges in opening the shops. For example, paper supply has shrunk due to multiple factors including manufacturers moving on to packaging material and craft papers as that seems more beneficial for them because textbooks were not being printed.

On the revenue front, there is cash flow problem as schools have not opened fully yet. The books supplied to schools have not reached students. Though the situation is improving on a day-to-day basis, we are not close to normalcy yet. Revenue for this year has plunged, though we expect demand to rise in March and in the first quarter of the next financial year. And we do expect normalcy from August onwards when schools are likely to open in a full-fledged manner. We don’t know if 2021 will be a normal year for us. Full normalcy in terms of finance and market demand is likely to revive only in 2022. In some pockets where schools have reopened, we can see positive movement; in the areas where schools have not reopened we have to wait longer for some semblance of normalcy to return to see signs of positive movement.

AABP: What are the other challenges of the current testing times?

Monica: Stock management and high return percentage are amongst the other challenges. Publishers have converted challenges presented by the lockdown into opportunity and switched over to the digital space. New session will start soon but publishers have not been able to dispose of their huge stocks. How to consume the stock caused by high returns last year and whatever we have this year is the challenge staring at publishers. The challenge in predicting production for this session is that due to erratic demand pattern it will likely result in publishers sitting on huge stocks till March 2022. To sum up, we are unable to accurately forecast demand and supply as they are volatile; and to top it we can’t even rely on historical data and past year patterns to try and predict how things will shape up.

AABP: By when do you predict the recovery phase to get over?

Monica: We are expecting this recovery phase to get over by 2022. But the quantum of recovery may differ from publisher to publisher as a lot will depend on the leftover stock from 2021 and how effectively it is dealt with.

AABP: Are there any changes in pricing strategies?

Monica: Of course there is a visible change in the pricing strategy. Last year the strategy was to keep pricing to the lowest possible as the purchasing capacity of the end customers had been hit badly. We have pared down additional discounts and are offering long-term plans instead. We are offering lucrative product combos for the end customers. With demand slowing down, prices have also gone down. But now with an increase in demand there may be room to revise pricing to reflect that.

AABP: Your thoughts on the future of printed books with this current trend of online learning and classes?

Monica: With the situation slowly inching towards normalcy, one thing is clear: remote learning is here to stay and with the imposed acceleration in adoption it will play a bigger role in the education ecosystem. The use of digital tools and virtual learning can add much to the current classroom-based learning system and will complement classroom-based teaching and learning.

There is no doubt that the future of printed books is still strong even in the face of accelerated digital adoption. The dependence on printed textbooks is not likely to reduce anytime in the near future. Earlier e-learning was complementing physical books. But now with greater digital acceptance and increased comfort factor, digital content will find use in a larger format, be it in supplementary or complementary form.

Hybrid model was always there, but now we will see an increasing reliance on digital format. Printed books will change in terms of material content as the integration of offline and online learning becomes more seamless.

AABP: Where do you position yourself in the digital learning solutions segment?

Monica: We are engaged in providing world-class digital learning solutions. It has been our constant endeavour to better our game, and our reach keeps inspiring us to do more. We rank ourselves in the top tier when it comes to digital solutions. During the pandemic we have launched our learning app –AASOKA –which offers students high quality study materials in the form of e-books, audio lessons, video lessons, online assignment and assessments. The app is driven by the latest research in pedagogy and innovations in teaching methodology to engage students’ attention and curiosity, encouraging and motivating them to study more and learn more. The Adaptive Assessments feature of the app customises assessments for each individual student based on their competency level derived from the result of the most recent test taken by the student. The detailed Analytics of the app traces the learning process of students helping them understand their areas of strength and weakness so they can realign their preparation accordingly.

MBD Alchemié, the digital arm of MBD, has successfully implemented Ecademy Solution (Digital Classrooms) in 3500 private schools and 5000+ Government Schools across various states in India along with 500+ schools in South Africa and Sri Lanka.

One can find a bouquet of apps by MBD Group on Play store and App Store, right from Kindergarten to Grade XII. The apps include animated stories, rhymes and the alphabet for kindergarten kids. For senior grades all the concepts of Science, Mathematics, SST, etc., are available in video format along with assessments and detailed analytics. With a healthy increase in user base year-on-year, our digital assets have been highly appreciated by users in 8000+ schools across the country.

AABP: What percentage of overall sales do digital products comprise? How long have these products been in the market?

Monica: MBD Group’s digital arm has been operational for more than a decade now and it contributes 12 to 15% of overall sales. MBD Alchemie has trained more than 30000 teachers in ICT.

AABP: What do you think is the future of AR/VR in K-12? Where does MBD use AR/VR technology?

Monica: The potential use case for AR/VR in K-12 is immense and has a bright and long future in education. MBD has been using AR/VR in delivering learning content to primary and secondary level for a long time now. We have been among the pioneers of digital learning in the publishing industry, launching the first AR app Nytra for education, along with about 100 other apps for primary kids on Play Store and App store. With more and more students, teachers and institutions using technology, we foresee great demand for this technology.

AABP: Share your views on the New Education Policy? How is the policy going to impact the publishing industry?

Monica: The New Education Policy (NEP 2020) is indeed a welcome move to realign the entire education system with the nation’s development goals and aspirations. It is a visionary document that takes into account real world challenges and opportunities and seeks to strengthen the education system to benefit from existing and future opportunities. Private sector players have a significant role to play in uplifting the standard of education and must be roped in through PPP models so that resources are pooled in and we have a world class education system to power a growing economy.

A lot will depend on the on-ground implementation and any practical changes at the ground level will be known once the new NCF is released. There is a lot of work to be done now if the new policy once implemented is to succeed. Teachers’ training is an important aspect that needs to be addressed on priority. More importantly, the government should create a mechanism to assess the performance of all schools (including those run by government; by private players; and those on PPP model) based on the achievement of Learning Outcomes. A school-rating system should also be created so that healthy competition can be created between schools to make the teaching and learning process effective for students in an experiential way. All this should be done by an independent government-aided/run agency, which can provide unbiased ratings. This can go a long way in achieving the objectives of the NEP at the school level along with meaningful participation of all stakeholders.

AABP: What message would like to convey to the industry?

Monica: The publishing industry is an important pillar of our education system. Private industry players have often led the way in developing world-class curriculums, learning materials and adopting the latest educational practices. While it is the prerogative of the government to frame policies and regulate the sector, private players are important stakeholders whose active participation has contributed to the growth and development of the education system in the country.

The education sector has contributed to nation building and has risen to the occasion as we have witnessed during the pandemic. The sector in-turn deserves all the help it can get from the government to tide over challenges. The sector also requires supportive environment to innovate and to grow their business. They need the government to recognise them as partners in development.

The publishing industry and publishing houses have for one played a stellar role in bringing education to the masses. Books – educational or of general interest — help a nation develop consciousness and build character. The publishing industry has and will continue to contribute selflessly to nation building and enable the search for knowledge and build a more conscious and productive citizenry.

MBD Group is a leading regional player in educational publishing and has a large repository of regional content. We would like to work with the government and contribute our resources for the successful implementation of education policies like NEP. By working together and pooling our resources we can contribute to the modernisation of the education system in the country.

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