For a few months now I have been interviewing educational specialists, teachers, and enthusiastic edtech change makers, who have a new solution in the area of learning and teaching. The following interview of a fascinating EdTech solution is the first published on these lines. This is the interview conducted with a non-profit named Shikhya with one the founders named Biswajit Nayak. The following text contains most of that interview. For full disclosure: I got involved with Shikhya around last Christmas and I am delighted to be a part of this.
What is Shikhya?
Shikhya is a non-profit, a social enterprise, where we want to reach out to people without access to learning content. There are a lot of places in the world without access to any good learning content. Even the e-learning, which has given a lot of opportunities to people who have internet-access, the same time it has been very unfortunate that a lot of these kids, who do not have access to internet. They are not able to get the benefits. The gap that was there before is even bigger now. We are widening the gap with this kind of system. So that is why we started a small project for my village back in 2013, where we wanted to give a Khan-academy style self-paced blended learning experience to kids. That is how it started early in 2013. We solved the situation in our village after much iteration and now we think that the same thing can be useful in many other villages. That is the idea. Shikhya is to ensure that we can bring the content in the language of the students’ choice. It is also contextualized. It is not something that is built for America. We contextualize those things so the student does not need to have knowledge of the American culture for them to learn the content. This, contextualization and in the student’s own language, makes the learning more effective.
What are Shikhya’s main strengths?
Main strength is implementation. The strength is that we can ensure that the promise of e-learning is not going to be for the fortunate few, who have Internet access. If you see today about 4 billion people do not have Internet access. We pried ourselves in implementing in places people don’t care about. We pride ourselves in implementing in places where people don’t even understand English. These are the neglected places where there is no money, no profit, to be made. These are the places where people live with less than 1 dollar/day. We are really taking the promise of e-learning to places that haven’t been reached before and truly democratizing learning.
What kind of impact can Shikhya have in a students’ life?
We have many stories. For instance a guy, this is just one story that is fascinating, that sometimes back had failed mathematic examination in class 10 five times in the past and his father is supposed to buy him a rickshaw so he can drive it when he has passed his legal age to drive. But this guy wanted to learn and wanted study. He has passed everything else, but not math. Unlike history, geography and literacy, if you miss something in the beginning, in addition or something, you may not be able to do the more advanced calculations or word problems. Something happened to this guy in class 5. He was ill and didn’t do the things properly and in India, you do not fail class 5, you can, however, fail in class 10. So this guy is not able to pass this test. So we started to look at where the problem was and his problem was that he couldn’t do the previous stuff properly and no tutor or teacher has tie to teach a kid in class 10 a concept that is taught in class 5. But in our solution, all the content is there to use. This guy wanted to learn and put in extra effort and do the classes 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 and eventually he passed the examination with out help, which let him practice on his own time and completing a lot of these exercises and with our video-based instruction it is like a personalized tutor for him, which he was not able to get before. This is one story of impact. This kid was supposed to be a rickshaw driver, now he will graduate from college and maybe he can do a clerical job. So from a rickshaw driver he was supposed to be if he could not pass the math in class 10 and now he is in college and, hopefully one day, can be a clerk. There are other beautiful stories, but in effect we are giving them an after-school program that they can do on their own time and on their own pace. If they don’t understand something, they can go back and do it again. That is the impact we are having. And a lot of kids have a problem in math, science and English. We have a solution to math and hopefully one day we can do the other things.
What can you tell me about your implementation?
I can tell about the implementation in India. India is a country, where we are not connected by Internet or by Facebook, but we are connected by one thing, which is the religious network. You go to a temple; you see a lot of people there. We have plenty of temples, mosques, and churches, and people go there. We needed a place where five kids can sit together in a healthy environment and then we give them an off-line server device, which can be there on that premises, and cheap android-tablets through which they can access the server. This is what we call a micro-learning center. This is the entire infrastructure we need. We just need a place where five people can sit together. This server-device and tablets are very portable. So we point a facilitator, who can come at a specific time to a specific place where five kids are there and the kids get their lessons. Then the facilitator can take the server and tablets to another village with another five kids. By time-sharing these things we can give 45 kids four hours/week tablet time, where they sit in front of a tablet, log in using their password and start learning math or science at their own pace. The cost of one micro-learning center is 461 US dollars. This provides for the server-device and five Android tablets. On top of that there are facilitator costs of about 60 dollars per month, so the total annual cost of a center is 1181 dollars. The cost per student is 26 dollars and the cost per hour of use is 13 cents.
What can technology do in learning from your point of view?
Here we are trying to do one thing, making sure the kids pass their examinations. The class sizes are very big in India. The problem with the teacher is that the teacher, one teacher, will handle about 50 students in 45 minutes in a class at a time. They don’t have time to ask a specific question to specific students. They don’t have time. So we have built a thing, where we can see where a student is at, by taking a diagnostic test, and we will adapt our exercises accordingly so that we can give them the right kind of questions. Once they master these questions, they can go onto the next level. We have built the entire math curriculum into the server in a particular way so we can adapt, so the really good students get the tough questions and the good students will get the standard-level questions. Once they answer the questions well and demonstrate mastery, we let them go forward to the next level. That is how technology works. We can repeat the teacher multiple times.
What is next for Shikhya?
For Shikhya we have about 23 learning centers in one state in Odisha and we have one strong area, which is math. We want to expand our content in that language first. We want to add science and English first. We want to implement 100 micro-learning centers or so, where this system works effectively. Once we have accomplished this, we hope it will help in other areas in India. We are working with a couple of volunteers, who are interested in doing this in Marathi, which is the language spoken in Mumbai. We are in early stages at this time. What ever we learn in Odisha, we are basically giving these things freely to others, who want to use this. The current goal is to see, how we can properly execute this thing in the place we are in now and how can we help other similar things in India do this. This is the near future. The big audacious goal is to do this worldwide, to do this in Africa, in war-torn areas like Syria, but that is a big dream. But now, wherever we are, we are doing it properly and getting the best practices and sharing it to others.