Internet & Tech

Very educational

Bytedance seeks Indian image overhaul


Learning fast in India

The Chinese video sharing app TikTok has been variously accused of broadcasting pornography; spreading propaganda from the terror group ISIS; and also of stealing personal data from its users, many of whom are minors.

So it’s not surprising that it is on a mission to improve its image, especially in India, its largest market outside China.

In late October TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, announced a new initiative called #EduTok – which will offer instruction in English, maths, science and career skills.

TikTok has 120 million monthly active users in India and is massibly popular among people who don’t speak English, many of whom live outside the first-tier cities. The number of customers there is second only to China, where its 500 million users know the app as Douyin. But TikTok has had a difficult year in India, with some regional governments trying to get the app banned.

In April it was temporarily removed from the Apple and Google app stores after a court in Chennai ruled that it had encouraged “degrading culture” and could help “sexual predators” to groom young victims. The app was reintroduced three weeks later when TikTok’s lawyers successfully argued that the court didn’t have the legal authority to ban the app on the grounds it had cited.

However, over the summer TikTok was back in the news after the platform was used to post videos inciting Hindu-Muslim violence and attacks against Dalits, or so-called ‘untouchables’.

The education campaign is designed to offset some of TikTok’s reputation for illicit or improper content, as well as put it on a path to greater profitability. “We want to change the wider perception of TikTok being an entertainment-only app,” Delhi newspaper Mint quoted Sachin Sharma, TikTok India’s director of sales and partnerships, as saying. Since quietly introducing more educational and ‘well being’ content in May Sharma says ‘entertainment’ now accounts for just 40% of TikTok’s Indian offering.

Tiktok partnered with local educational start-ups like Vedantu and Toppr to produce the new content. For motivational videos and careers advice it collaborated with well-respected social enterprises Josh Talks and the Nudge Foundation.

These 15-second videos – the time limit on Tiktok – have already been viewed more than 48 billion times Sharma said. Two of the most popular ‘shows’ are “English with Geet” and “Awal Creations” – both teaching English in short, attention-grabbing nuggets. Geet, an actress who has used a wheelchair since having an accident as a child, teaches English idioms like “kicked the bucket” and “I am all ears”, while Awal Madaan is a motivational speaker who translates Hindi phrases into English.

As in China, online education is a boom sector in India. Although the state is supposed to provide free education to children up to the age of 14, many rural schools are short of teachers and resources. Private tuition often fills the gap, with families willing to pay significant proportions of their monthly income.

But better access to a reliable mobile phone network and a cheap smartphone – often Chinese made – means that online learning is becoming a better option in India.

A 2017 report by KPMG and Google estimated that almost 10 million Indians would be paying for online courses by 2021, producing revenues of $1.96 billion.

India is already home to the world most valuable edtech firm – Bangalore-based BYJU, which is worth $5.4 billion. China’s Tencent is one of its shareholders.

Analysts say that TikTok’s move into education could help the app become profitable, because advertisers generally prefer to be associated with more wholesome content.

“Education is very strategic for anyone seeking content monetisation in India. Education gets you into the household,” Madhur Singhal from Praxis Global Alliance told the Financial Times.

TikTok’s owner Bytedance was lossmaking in the first half of this year on revenues of between $7 billion and $8.4 billion, according to Reuters. Worth $75 billion at its last funding round, it has plans to IPO in Hong Kong early next year.

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