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Education ministry flags dangerous practices by ed-tech companies in advisory for citizens

Jan 4, 2022

We missed this earlier: Citizens should do background checks of ed-tech companies before purchasing from them, the Ministry of Education has recommended in an advisory issued on December 23. The ministry has also warned users against enabling auto-debit payment mechanisms on such platforms and asked them to check the quality of the educational material, among other suggestions.

Malpractices by certain ed-tech companies such as enrolments through dubious loans were recently highlighted in Parliament by Congress MP Karti P. Chidambaram. News reports have also emerged about how companies like Byju’s pursue aggressive sales tactics, prompting calls for government regulations. However, this is the first time the Ministry has said anything or cautioned citizens on this issue.

Do’s and don’ts for citizens

Avoid getting coerced into loans, falling for OTP scams :

  • Users should not sign up for loans of which they are not aware.
  • Children should be made to understand marketing strategies used by ed-tech companies to encourage spending.
  • The automatic debit option for payment should be avoided as it could lead to a child inadvertently accessing paid content. Credit/debit cards should also not be added for subscription on apps, and these cards should have an upper expenditure limit. Purchases on such apps should not be allowed without parental consent.
  • Sharing information about bank account, OTP, card, email, etc. should be avoided since it could be sold or used for scam attacks.
  • A tax invoice statement should be demanded on the purchase of educational devices loaded with contents/app purchase/Pendrive learning.

Prevent surreptitious data collection by companies:

  • As personal data/IP addresses could be tracked, citizens should read the terms and conditions before acknowledging the acceptance of learning software/device.
  • Personal videos and photos should not be shared and caution should be used against turning on the video feature or getting on video calls on an unverified platform.
  • Any attachments or pop-up screens from unfamiliar sources should not be opened.
  • Any ed-tech phone apps, whose authenticity has not been verified, should not be downloaded.

How to check if the ed-tech service is authentic and good?

  • Citizens should look for student/parent reviews online on a ed-tech company  and also provide their own.
  • A detailed background check of the ed-tech company should be done before subscribing.
  • It should be verified if such a company’s content is in line with the syllabus, scope of study and easily comprehensible to the child.
  • All doubts/questions regarding the payment and content should be clarified before spending any amount in any ed-tech company.
  • Advertisements should not be trusted blindly , and thus citizens should not subscribe to unverified courses on their false promises or trust ‘success stories’ shared by them without a proper check.

Regulating ed-tech companies: How to go about it?

Regarding purchases, data collection and payments:

  • Refund requests, as prescribed by the RBI or any other law in force, at the time should be accepted
  • Consent for a product should be recorded through explicit and affirmative action.
  • Prices of products not be manipulated to increase profit, based on unjustified pricing considering market conditions, nature of the course, extraordinary circumstances under which the course is offered, etc.
  • Companies can also not discriminate between subscribers of the same class or make any arbitrary classification collecting their personal data/breaching privacy through unfair means affecting their rights under the Act.

Regarding grievance redressal:

  • E-commerce entities, like edtech companies have to be a part of the Central government’s National Consumer Helpline.
  • A grievance officer should be appointed by the company who has to acknowledge receipt of any consumer complaint within forty-eight hours and redresses it within a month. Their name, contact number should be displayed on the platform.

Regarding advertisements:

The advisory said that companies are prohibited from misrepresenting themselves as customers to post false reviews or otherwise misrepresenting the quality or features of their products. Similarly, they also adopt any unfair trade (marketing) practice.

The advisory listed Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) guidelines for such companies:

On affiiliation, accreditation,etc: Companies cannot advertise or make the public believe that a course is ‘official, recognized, authorized, accredited, approved, registered, affiliated, endorsed’,etc. unless substantiated with evidence.

Thus, an ad for a Degree, Diploma or Certificate which requires to be recognized or approved by an Authority shall specify the name of that Authority. In case the advertised Institution or Program is not recognized or approved by any mandatory authority but is affiliated to another institution, which is approved or recognized by the Authority, then the full name and location of the said Affiliating Institution shall also be stated in the advertisement.

“The name of the Affiliating Institution, as indicated in 2(b), shall not be less than 50% of the font size as that of the advertised Institution or Program in visual media such as print, internet, hoarding, leaflet, prospectus etc., including television. In audio media such as radio or TV the name of the Affiliating institution (if applicable), must be stated,” the advisory says.

On claims and success stories:

  • Claims about a product providing a temporary or permanent job, admissions to institutions, job promotions, salary increase etc. should not be made unless they can be substantiated. These should also have a disclaimer stating ‘past record is no guarantee of future job prospects.’ The font size of the disclaimer should not be less than the size of the claim being made in the advertisements.
  • Claims regarding extent of the passing batch placed, the highest or average compensation of the students placed, enrolment of students, admissions of students to renowned educational institutes, marks and ranking of students passed out,etc. should not be made unless they are of the latest completed academic year and can be substantiated.
  • Advertisement stating competitive rank of the institution or its program shall also provide full name and date of the publication or medium which released the rankings.
  • Visual infrastructure of the Institution shown in the advertisement shall be real and exist at the time of the advertisement’s release.
  • Testimonial of toppers in an advertisement shall be from students who have participated in the testimony program, exams or subject only from the advertising institute.
  • An advertisement stating the number of passing out students placed for jobs shall also state the total number of students passing out from the placed class

How would India’s data protection bill impact ed-tech companies?

The latest draft of the Data Protection Bill contains provisions restricting companies from “profiling, tracking, behaviour monitoring, or targeted advertising for children.” They also cannot undertake any other processing of personal data that can cause significant harm to the child.

Such provisions could impact the functioning of ed-tech companies since their business model depends on their ability to track the progress of a child, Rajiv Chilaka, CEO of Green Gold Animation said during an event hosted by MediaNama. At the same event Rahul Narayan, an independent lawyer, had suggested there be a distinction between schooling and other activities. “We have this one umbrella legislation that covers both education and non-educational institutions, which is not a particularly smart way to go about it,” Narayan said. Instead, he argued for an activity-based approach to regulation: for instance, edtech companies or schools could be allowed to process children’s data, provided they adhere to higher standards than other institutions.

Also read:

  • Byju’s predatory practices flagged in Parliament by MP Chidambaram
  • Summary: National Digital Education Architecture report details structure and policies
  • NEP 2020: Karnataka government launches UUCMS portal to digitise higher education

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I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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