India's BoP Edtech: The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is vital to keep this short but potent truth in mind when addressing the unique challenges, trends and potential opportunities of India’s 1 billion person base of the economic pyramid (BoP) population and its education sector in particular. While true in all sectors of development, this is perhaps forgotten the most when it comes to utilizing technology for development within education.  Given the scale and scope of the challenges present within education it is therefore important to begin the journey towards finding solutions with the understanding that technology alone is not the answer.  It is, however, a critical part of the solution.  The misguided belief that technology is a silver bullet for BoP education and its challenges is dangerous and has the potential to inflict as much, if not more, harm than good.

Let’s dive into the realities of this assertion within education, failed examples of ‘tech is the answer’ approaches, along with illustrations of Indian startups that are seeking to appropriately utilize technology as part of a well-rounded approach to realize solutions to academic woes.

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The Education Sector and Its Challenges

The Indian education sector is perhaps one of the most suitable sectors for disruption by the technology development. Ranging from educational games and storytelling for students K-12, to advanced lessons for college and university students, to vocational training and mentorship for those in or seeking to enter the workforce, the education sector has been quickly expanding its technology practices through mobile phones, tablet computers, PCs and other digital devices. According to ASER 2013 findings, many of India’s citizens are unable to read and write and are numerically and financially illiterate as well, which leaves speech as the only formal method of communication available. As a result, literacy challenges are immense hurdles for large parts of India’s economy. Thankfully, affordable mobile phones and other digital devices are widely available across socioeconomic divides and are beginning to serve as unique entry points to tackle India’s illiteracy issues.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions … and free laptops

Early on, many technology for development projects throughout the world placed an emphasis on deploying technology to rural areas under poverty under the belief that access to technology, internet, and other information and communication amenities enjoyed by those in developed countries, would ensure that actors within those areas would be empowered and catalyze behavior changes that would accelerate economic growth.  Failed forays into ‘investment computing’ such as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Node in Peru (explored by the Economist within their article Error Message) show that, “giving a child a computer does not seem to turn him or her into a future Bill Gates—indeed it does not accomplish anything in particular.”  Thankfully out of failures like this come hard-fought learning’s, which in turn are leading to a greater emphasis to be placed on understanding the psychological, sociological, and economic construct of communities and how technology can bring about real, holistic changes.

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Despite good intentions, the low-cost OLPC was a market failure

Kentaro Toyama, a technologist and educator, is a proponent of the belief that technology for development typically amplifies the practices and norms to that which the technology is applied. Learn more from his video. As a result, the key to improving the state of an impoverished area is to focus technological applications on specific facets in order to accelerate growth and development in the entire system. In addition, it is essential that continued low-cost support for technological devices, applications, and platforms in the form of hardware, software, networks, and services are provided.

Another example of a technology for development misstep was with the SchoolNet South Africa initiative. This program provided computers to schools and youth organizations with limited resources in order to allow children in these areas to feel a sense of social inclusion and to enable the transfer of learning and skills in a scalable manner.  What this program did not foresee however, was the lack of relevant content for these young students to interact with, which would ultimately allow the technology to be relevant to them: the lack of low-cost, reliable technological support and network connectivity, and the lack of products and applications in the local language.  This illustrates that when technology is deployed it must not only be relevant to its intended users, but it must also empower them with the resources necessary to continuously utilize their new capabilities.

Four Start-Ups Leveraging Tech to Improve BoP Education

With some of the challenges and opportunities understood, the following 4 companies provide examples of startups working to bridge the education gap by leveraging technology.

Zaya’s cloud based learning labs

A great education technology (edutech)  play can be seen in the educational technology and services company Zaya, which recently received Series A funding from Pearson Affordable Learning Fund.  Aiming to educate, activate and empower 1 billion students at the BoP, Zaya is a social enterprise creating a network cloud based ‘learning labs.’ Through their model illustrated in the image below, they leverage a combination of standardized material, affordable tablets and a scalable model to bring affordable high-quality education to students.

Zaya

Quest Explore Discover, bringing Fun into the Fundamentals of Science

A similar but different approach to utilizing technology within education is seen within the Chennai based Quest Explore Discover (QED) which was founded in 2011 and was recently invested in by Lok Capital.  Aiming to “bring ‘Fun into the Fundamentals of Science’ with science aids and activity based learning augmented by ICT (Information and Communications Technology), the program is built with ‘global input and reach” in mind. To accomplish this, QED is working to transform K-12 science education one school at a time through the creation of exhibit-centric learning centers designed to enhance HOTS (higher order thinking skills). Making their services “universally available and accessible” across “all rural and semi-urban areas” has allowed them to reach 1 million people thus far.  With 2 districts and 69 schools covered during their phase 1, they are now ramping up to cover 7 districts, 200+ schools and the potential to impact 40,000 students during Phase 2.

QED

Edsix Brain Lab’s educational games

Another example of a startup leveraging technology to increase literacy and learning outcomes among the poor is Edsix Brain Lab.  Founded in 2013, they are working to provide affordable private schools and the government with a multi-lingual interactive brain skill enhancement program by using highly-interactive educational games and best-in-class learning techniques,. This software application develops the memory, focus and attention, problem solving, linguistics, and visual processing capabilities of its students.

Edsix

Invention Labs Engineering’s Avaz

The last example of a technology being used within education is Invention Labs Engineering, whose flagship application Avaz is empowering students, parents and teachers within the inclusive education space.

Avaz Today there is a growing concern within India around the increasing prevalence of autistic disorders and the challenges associated with social inclusion. Avaz aims to expand the adoption of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) in India, which encompasses the “communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing for those with impairments in the production or comprehension of spoken or written language.” While originally released as a standalone tablet computer devoted to educating those with autism, cerebral palsy, and other special training need segments, the increasing affordability of tablets and the widespread adoption of iPad’s in recent years lead to the creation of a stand-along App for both iOS and Android.  The App “enables a child with autism to learn to communicate using pictures and artificial speech.” When employed in concert with a therapist, Avaz helps a child build vocabulary, facilitates increased desire to communicate and helps to calm many of the behavior problems caused by the frustration which stems from being unable to communicate.  Avaz is one of the influential technologies empowering teachers and parents to bring their autistic children closer to social inclusion.

For more insight into inclusive education, training and employment, be sure to check out 75 Companies Transforming India’s Livelihoods where inclusive technologies (Barrier Break Tech), trainers (V-Shesh or Youth 4 Jobs) and employers (Vindhya or Mirakle Courriers) are transforming the livelihoods of PwD in areas such as Assistive Technology and Inclusive Employment & Inclusive Sourcing and other innovative ways.

Conclusion

While the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the challenges experienced within ‘technology is the answer’ approaches have paved the way for a new generation of innovative startups using technology to scale new solutions to empower increasingly larger numbers of India’s students.

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