The pandemic may have accorded broader acceptance to the concept of online learning but in a market like India where people have historically been subscribers of traditional businesses and services, digital education will never be able to replicate the familiarity and holistic development associated with physical classrooms. Affordability of multiple digital devices is still a distant dream for several mid and low income households and often learners from less privileged families have had to accommodate a spate of online classes on a single smartphone screen.

Two years of Covid have ushered in what Mrinal Mohit, chief operating officer at Byju’s calls ‘forced digital learning.’ The ed-tech startup which has amassed close to $4.1 billion from investors and has been leading the online K-12 learning space is now readying to tap into users who prefer physical mode of learning. They are not necessarily averse to online learning but are looking for an approach that also provides room for physical classroom instruction. This is where the company’s fresh offering Byju’s Tuition Centres come into play. The plan is to launch 500 centres across 200 cities this year. The centres will be evenly distributed across tier one, two, three and four cities, including in places like Junagadh and Bokaro. These are brick-and-mortar tuition centres equipped with tech capabilities.

Byju’s has earmarked investments worth about $200 million for the offering; the allocation will be spread across 12-18 months. Over the years, Byju's plan to scale them up to about 2,000-3,000 centres. “India is a large market and we are sure we can keep multiplying the numbers,” says Mohit. The centres will be evenly distributed across tier one, two, three and four cities. Places like Junagadh, Bokaro are on the list. Byju’s has priced the offering at about ₹3,000 although it may vary across locations, adds Mohit.

For instance, in every such centre, a student will receive learning through both online and offline medium — there will be a physical instructor to handhold the students while recorded sessions of digital classes will also be used as learning resources. The service will cover students of classes 4-10. The market for such learners is considerable and Byju’s is eyeing some one million students over the next two years. “There are two separate cohorts of parents. One which totally believes in online learning and another which seeks some sort of physical intervention. Byju’s Tuition Centres match their requirements,” Mohit tells Fortune India.

Mohit explains that the company’s online play has allowed it to amass rich data on learners. The firm can leverage the data sets to identify the inadequacies, abilities of students and accordingly categorise them into various groups. Within the physical centres, the students can therefore be given personalised instructions. “Tech has enabled us to personalise the learning process. Education has to be more student-centric,” says Mohit. The target is to launch 500 centres across 200 cities this year. Of the 500, about 85 centres that were initially established as part of a pilot launch are already operational. “About 60%-70% of learners in India want to take tuitions. Hence, we are confident that we will have a huge scale up in the learning at tuition space. And we are looking at a million students because this is an existing segment,” says Mohit.

Analysts say that the bet might pay off. Online education has so far largely been accessed by affluent families who can afford to sign up for more than one ed-tech service. But a large part of the population has not even tried digital offerings be it due to restricted access to the internet or lack of adequate infrastructure. Online education accounts for a mere 2.5%-3% of the total education spends, says Vaibhav Tamrakar, senior vice-president at PGA Labs. “Being present in the hybrid model actually enables a company to put its product out in the first place,” says Tamrakar. The students of the budget private school segment that covers about 85% of the schools in India make for a huge untapped market. “After school, a student has 4-5 hours only and all the tech players are now fighting for that 4-5 hours’ time,” adds Tamrakar.

The move to set up physical tuition centres will also enable Byju’s to get the students to organically sign up for the courses provided by Aakash Educational Services, the chain of brick and mortar test prep centres it acquired last year in a near $1 billion deal. “There is a big synergy wherein students will use Byju’s Tuition Centres for classes 4-10 and then move to Aakash to avail coaching for entrance exams,” says Mohit. The offline physical tuition centres serves as a good feeder for the Aakash centres, seconds an analyst who did not wish to be named. Besides, it will also potentially allow the startup to get the students who enrol for the tuition centres to try other digital offerings of the firm, say analysts.

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