Home Interview Our Frugal Tech Innovations developed on design thinking are demonstrating the desired impact of improved learning outcomes in our schools

Our Frugal Tech Innovations developed on design thinking are demonstrating the desired impact of improved learning outcomes in our schools

27 min read
Noida-based Sampark Foundation (esb. 2005), is a prominent nonprofit organization working with eight state governments in India to transform basic education of 20 million school children through a set of frugal classroom innovations and teacher enablement. This large-scale learning/teaching transformation is demonstrating its promise by significantly arresting the dropout rates and improving learning outcomes in districts of its operation and has become a ‘case study’ at Harvard Business School.

Vineet Nayar, Founder-Chairman of Sampark Foundation, who is an illustrious former CEO of HCL Technologies and an influential IT industry leader and guru, spoke to Autar Nehru on his Foundation’s drive to give India a tested quick fix solution by 2025 to improve learning outcomes in children

Let’s begin by knowing what led to your undivided focus on primary education and birth of this one-of-its-kind frugal tech innovations that are showing impact on ground and have the potential of fixing learning crisis in our under-provisioned schools?

Our original journey began in 2005 with the setting up of this (Sampark) Foundation, the objective was giving back to the society by way of funding a group of NGOs in diverse fields of Agriculture, Education and Healthcare. Like everybody does, we also followed the due commissioning process and provided funds but were not monitoring their work. After seven years, I decided to take a look at all the projects we were sponsoring and supporting by take a tour. What I found was the impact of our supported work on ground was anything but marginal. So, I came to two conclusions. One, funding alone is not enough for bringing about any systemic change. You need ideas and innovations based on design thinking, and then a passion and perseverance to implement them. Two, no change or reform is possible unless you have political support and that is going to come only if your mission is on a large scale, which actually makes a sense for such alignment and support also.  We were at crossroads as what we were doing was not making any impact. For any meaningful social change, we needed more time than money and that is how I and my wife Anupama (Nayar) decided to quit our jobs in 2012 and work full time for operationalizing dream of Samparak. After a lot of brainstorming and discussions, we decided to focus only on education for first 15 years till 2025 and intervene in the classroom transaction environment to improve school education outcomes at the bottom of the pyramid.

What you are saying is, The Samparak 2.0 began in 2012-13 with a classroom centered innovations model. Designing and developing innovations and the initial journey, must have been quite an experience. Could you take us through the important stages?

When we began, we had a clear idea that whatever has to be done must be based on innovative and design thinking. So we created a design and innovation centre to look at the possible interventions and where to intervene. A lot of discussion and exchange of ideas happened with experts including international educational scientists and other people. We zeroed in on classrooms as this is where the problem lies. How to make classrooms spaces of excitement for both children as well teachers was thought of and innovations for engaging pedagogical emerged as the area of focus and work. A big consideration in this whole strategy design was the innovations need to be frugal in nature that is low cost under $100 so that these can deployed at scale as in a vast country like India, we can’t afford mas costly solutions. In a period of three years, in 2015, we were ready with the first generation of these innovations and included a FLN kit, Maths Kit, Science Program, Sampark Smart ShalaTM, Audio box etc. In 2016, we formally started operation in 11000 schools of Uttarakhand and 33000 schools in Chhattisgarh.

Before we get into details of this innovative pedagogy, let’s talk about on why classroom engagement mattered in your choice?

An analysis of learning outcomes shows that these have deteriorated year on year. We have disengaged teachers, disengaged parents, who are not interested in education of their children, we have multigrade classrooms (single-teacher schools). Then studies show that as against 48% in developed countries, our teacher are engaged only about 19% of time in teaching.  We do have big infrastructure and other challenges as but only way we can solve this critical need of improving learning outcomes is through transformation of classroom transaction between the teacher and students. This can only happen if there is engagement, involvement and excitement in the classroom. So, that was the central premise of our intervention, and we brought Bollywood like songs, dance and stories to the classroom to make them immersive and exciting.

That is very enthusiastic. Now, how does learning happen through this excitement?

Our tagline is ‘Sahi Kram, Sahi Dung’ (Right sequence, Right way of methodology). The teaching/ learning tools and materials deployed in classrooms is a combination of 16 components including an android TV and an audio box called ‘Sampark Didi’ – which delivers 112 carefully researched lessons with songs, music and games. The classroom is turned into a smart class with preloaded SD cards in TV sets. The teacher acts as the anchor and through a combination of these tools, the simulations including gamification and assessments, learning happens in the class.

Teacher is centric to this solution and your Foundation runs a large teacher training program. Can you briefly touch upon this aspect before we move on to your expansion in the states with poorest learning outcomes?

Everybody trains teacher on subject knowledge, but we decided to train them on how to use the tools and also how to feel proud of upskilling in use of tech-based pedagogy, a kind of mindset training. We train 5 lakh of them for two days a year. And when, they engage with these innovations and tools in a pedagogical simulation in the classroom on routine basis, they too become learners of the whole process. They sing along, they dance and teach, they tell a story and then teach and become aware of using technology. He or she becomes excited and interested in classroom processes. TV turns into a smart board and her/him a facilitator. Her/his job become easier. Making life of a teacher easier and exciting while building their capacities and mastering the process of becoming a skilful teacher is our goal for sustainability of this strategy. Ultimately, a teacher would not need us or even the TV when he or she reaches that capacity.

 Coming back to the journey of your initiative, tell our readers, how do you operate and align with the state governments?

When we began this journey, we set a target of 2 Crore children and 1 lakh schools to prove that our biggest challenges of poor learning outcomes and GER in school education can be solved with innovative tools and frugal solutions and change is possible. After Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh, we expanded to six more states–Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. We have presence in most backward districts now known aspirational districts, tribal districts, naxal affected districts, meaning the remotest and those places where schools find it hard to function. We operate by adopting all the government schools in the designated districts in a state based on a MoU for five years, extended by another five years to carry through a child from class 1 to class 8 with no cost to government. We closely monitor our program through our ‘Sparks’, who are actually members of our team chosen from local communities and trained intensely to monitor and interact with schools and teachers for giving support. As we operate in all schools of the district, the district administration naturally gets a lot of feedback and analytics from us and everybody from Chief Minister to education minister and officials of education department take note.

That means you are also producing a lot of insightful research in these areas and about schools. Before you answer that, what about the measure of success of this intervention on such a scale?

As I said earlier, we saw an early impact and that is how we found confidence and takers. We have been able to significantly arrest the dropout rates after class 5. This has been possible because now children learn and comprehend. Earlier, what was happening, children were mostly coming to schools for Midday meals. They were not bothered or excited to learn and later when the subjects started to become complex, a large number of them couldn’t follow or understand the academics explaining the high dropout rate upto 36%. Now in case of our schools, that trend is changing.  They understand what classroom process is about. They can relate to subjects and make attempt to cope and learn.  Same for teachers, who are progressing and learning to succeed in multi-grade classrooms.

So far as research is concerned, we produce tons of it though not for publication of reports but for private circulation within the government because the purpose is improving the outcomes and share insights through data. As I come from an IT background, we have created dashboards to share feedback and also help in their data needs, assessments, performance and correlations, subjects, block clusters, etc. Our interest is change and give government as much information as we can.

You are working with eight states, which have seen change of governments and therefore different political parties. Has it impacted your operation in anyway?

Not at all. In fact, we have only grown and that would itself tells all political parties see improving education as a necessary challenge to be tackled. We have received wholesome support from all quarters.

Building on what you just said, do you feel education has become a central political agenda in the country?

I think so, recently Prime Minister (Modi) spoke on education during The Akhil Bhartiya Shiksha Samagam (ABSS) in Delhi, where I also spoke. It has not happened in the last so many years, not even in in his earlier tenure and not by in the tenure of earlier Prime Ministers. There is a realization that if so, many youths are educated but not employable, somewhere our education system is broken. It is also critical for country’s ambition of becoming 3rd largest economy that education is attended to. In this context NIPUN Bharat is very important mission. The second realization is that our children have become aspirational for good education and therefore if you are politically seen as investing into education, the possibility of swinging votes your way increases.

That brings into focus AAP led Delhi government’s thrust on education. How do you compare your program with its initiatives, and do you feel that is a model for the country?

I don’t think there is a comparison, Delhi government’s initiative is focused on bettering infrastructure and the premise is if you provide good infrastructure, the learning in schools will improve. In contrast, Samparak Foundation doesn’t focus on infrastructure, we focus on learning outcomes through classroom interventions. Our belief is, fixing and upgrading infrastructure though necessary will take 10-20 years and we shouldn’t allow children and country to lose out all this while. Delhi can afford it being small but other states can’t afford the costly proposition. Therefore, for India, it is essential to focus on learning outcomes and learning /teaching material. Surely Delhi model is not for India.

Are you ready to take this model to more states?

No, not any more states. We had a target of 10 million schools and 20 million children, and we have already reached about 15 million children mark. By 2025, we’ll start withdrawing from education as per our plan and by then this process will take roots and states will not remain dependent on us.  I’ll also add as a votary of open source, all our IPs are available for anybody to use.

There are also large number of budget private schools, which actually are no better than government schools and a large child population is studying there. Do you see a role for Samparak Foundation in their transformation as well?

I am glad you talked about it; we are thinking on it. There is a large number of budget schools, and we are working on a program on how to reach these schools and what kind of relationship we will have with them. We can’t charge them money; we are clear on that. In the next one year, we will select 25000 of them in the districts we are operating because we will be monitoring them as well.  Our two conditions would be they won’t increase their fee for our solutions and two we will monitor them.

In your view, what are two-three pragmatic reforms that India needs to fix its school education for better outcomes?  

Standardization of what I call sahi kram-Sahi dung, right sequences and right methods of teaching. Then, standardize what tools and tech can be provided to teacher to enable him/her. Introduce digital interface by installing TV in the classroom. This will be cheapest way of overcoming incapacity of teachers and bring song, drama and smart class to classrooms. The frugal solution won’t cost much, at Rs 20,000 you can achieve this. Then, we should be increasing teaching time to at least 30-35% is also important.

NEP 2020 and NIPUN Bharat are walking in this direction. Midday meal was for increasing access and enrolment, NEP is about quality education and when in mission mode, these get attention. Slowly, when we start talking, I am sure over a period of time, we will be able to fix it as India has the capability and innovators.

 You being a distinguished IT industry leader and also now well-versed with school education status of our country, what is your take on the edtech boom in India?

Actually, in my view as a country we’ll have to make a clear choice in being not for profit or for profit as it doesn’t make any sense of tying hands of your institutions and at the same time allowing coaching and ed tech make profit. So, the real competition is missing. We have at best become an Amazon like marketplace where availability of content and navigation is there, but interactivity and human interface is lazy. Intelligence is not being inbuilt in these solutions when you compare with finance, pharma and other sectors. We need to graduate from commodification to customization. We need cutting edge customization online of application of aadhar and not more channels and platforms. We don’t need diksha but how a leaner of videos leaner through videos but another preferring to read or listen gets his or her way.

You are a country of largest number of young people and instead of becoming social burden where you have to give them subsidies, you should turn them into to your strategic advantage and enable and empower them with innovations and cutting-edge solutions to work all over the world. Fixing school system is the first step in that direction.

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