Home Interview Our effort is to make quality school education through tech more accessible to socio-economically marginalized families

Our effort is to make quality school education through tech more accessible to socio-economically marginalized families

16 min read
Pune-based VOPA (Vowels of the People Association) set up in 2018 as a nonprofit social enterprise, metamorphosed into a hugely successful edtech solutions provider post 2020 with its impactful response to schooling disruption from Covid pandemic. Its V-School App, launched as a result, has been downloaded by more than 3 million students and 40 thousand teachers across Maharashtra, while its Youtube channel with a repository of 11000+ videos and growing is also hugely popular.

Autar Nehru spoke with VOPA’s founder-director Prafulla Shashikant to understand the success story of this young social impact organization

You studied mechanical engineering at the Government College of Engineering, Aurangabad and also went to SPJIMR and yet chose a different career path of social impact entrepreneurship. Why so?

Marathwada is called the ‘Bihar’ of Maharashtra and you can understand the importance education has for its people. It has also been the land of great social as well as historic movements including that of Dr BR Ambedkar and several others.  So, I as a child was very much influenced by the talk around social transformation, watching social activists and developing an interest. As I come from a Dalit family, education is held in a high esteem in our people and it was more so in our family and thankfully my parents were focused on my education, and I got good education. Post my engineering, in 2010, I came in contact with Dr Abhay Bang, an iconic figure in social work in whole of Maharashtra including his marvelous work in our region and joined his organization a year later. While still in the formative period of this engagement and a thought of preparing for civil services, I lost my mother to cancer. This was the time, when I realized that whatever meaningful and empowering, I wanted to do for society, I should do it now. Following this, for next 5-6 years working under the mentorship of Dr Abhay Bang was a life changing experience and I got so much to learn and develop insights and skills. Then in 2018, I decided to start a project of my own and that’s how this journey really began.

What was it that you were not able to do in your job and influenced your decision to be on your own?

As I said, working with Dr Bang was a life changing experience. His organization SEARCH Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health) runs a program by the name of Nirman for guiding youth to develop their capacity and skill. I was also a beneficiary of this program, and it gave me an opportunity to travel all districts of Maharashtra. While all this learning journey, I became aware about a lot of useful information and also working of organizations. All this knowledge and potential of localizing some of the developmental efforts for more needy and local people fueled my dream of working in Marathwada.

What does the name Vowels of the People Association signify?

Our vision and philosophy and vision is influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. All of them have used what Dr Ambdekar said ‘Educate, agitate, organize’— verbs beginning with vowels. So we are inspired by that and hope through ripple effect can better lives of people.

So, what were some initial works?

All through my early work journey, I firmed my belief that teachers are important and a marvelous resource of social transformation as what they do stays for a generation with the children they teach. And, during my stint at Nirman, I had learnt how value education, capacity building and skilling can change the situation on ground.  Education as a social good has also parents as willing stakeholders to any positive intervention to improve the school. So, we zeroed in on improving teachers and transforming schools. As novices, we needed to test ourselves as also to convince others of our intervention.  For this, we went to those schools, where no one paid heed. We approached the schools in red-light area, a school for HIV positives and near sugar mills. We were welcomed as a pleasant surprise by these schools, and we began teacher training project there in 2018.

Okay. That means teacher training was your focus?

Yes, actually from 2018-March 2020, we had worked on several projects, and we were specializing in it. The teachers were loving it and the district council was also helping this model as the teachers were getting trained free of cost. And we were also happy in bringing a change in the way teachers looked at their job and up skilled. In fact, our website was meant to deliver capacity training and engagement to teachers.  And then, Covid changed almost everything.

Tell us how Covid pandemic transformed your work?

As the word spread that education has gone online, it created a panic situation among students of marginalized communities as access to education was hampered due to lack of devices and other reasons. Then, we also saw reports of children committing suicide only because they were removed from WhatsApp groups. All this made us to think about what we can do to mitigate this distress. Fortunately, we didn’t have to look beyond as the teachers that we had trained was a crucial and valuable resource at our disposal. So we engaged teachers to create content and worked on tech delivery for students. Our work was noticed as our content became very popular. We were encouraged by many individual donors.  And, given the success and acceptability of our free content, we made it for classes 1 to 10. Seeing our work, Act for Education, the Rs 100 Cr Ed tech fund, extended help to us and in 2021, we launched our app V-school.

How is your content different from already a plethora of free content on platforms such as YouTube?

One of the unique features of our content is that it has been created by teachers, chapter wise. So, the student community not only relates to them but also comprehends better. Every teacher is in a way unique in applying his or her pedagogy. As such our content can be from a simple audio to a demonstration or a discussion. Given the popularity of our content, we see people from all over Maharashtra are using it. Also, the teachers themselves 2500 of them are feeling the importance. They wouldn’t have touched the tech but new are becoming tech savvy. The government is also happy as we have shouldered some of its work.

Please give us a little overview of your V-School app?

VOPA has developed an Android application named V-School that offers educational content for the Maharashtra State Board curriculum. For each of the grades 1–10, the educational content on the app is organised by textbook chapters, and each section in a chapter is taught using videos, images, presentations, etc. Moreover, the app is equipped with features such as loud reading of text, multiple-choice questions on each topic, etc. to support student learning. V-School is available for Marathi, Semi-English, and Urdu-medium students. ChatGPT API has been integrated to the app recent enabling AI to generate revision questions and word meanings automatically.

The content on V-School is a product of collaboration between VOPA, Ahmednagar, and Jalgaon Zila Parishads. More than, 2500 teachers in these districts were trained to create subject-specific educational resources. The teachers were selected based on their interests, past work records, and official recommendations. So far, V-School has been used by more than 3 million students and 40 thousand teachers across Maharashtra.

How do you compare Dikhsha content offered by the Ministry of Education with your own?

No doubt Dikhsha is great initiative, the content is very good. But it is more of a top-down kind of offering as against out bottom up and localized solution.

Are you looking at whole of Maharashtra or beyond the state borders?

Too early to think of a larger scale but we feel our content is utilized all over the Maharashtra state. We can replicate the model anywhere. Already eight district parishads are onboard with us. As were conceptualizing this project to tide over the Covid disruption, we did realize that we’re actually working for a long-term goal and it is going to be relevant beyond covid as well, so our growth is ongoing. We diversified in scholarship exam prep and it was so well received that we are continuing with it.

 Any concluding comments?

My own philosophy is that education is central to development of individual and then through individuals to society, so its sanctity and availability remains a sacred societal duty.  If platforms like Wikipedia and Google can be free and biggest democratizers, so can be us. We are very satisfied with the direction that we are in, we have been able to get TV screen and other devices unused in schools for a long time, get in operation mode and demonstrated all good schemes are implementable if done with a purpose and professional approach.


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