By Kavitha Srinivasa
From being an Electronic Design Automation (EDA) professional Himanshu Agrawal has come a long way. In his latest avatar as a founder of Schooglink Pvt Ltd, the former IITian takes us through an interesting journey.
Himanshu Agrawal pursued his B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (Class of 2000) and was clear about his career path. “I had no intentions of going abroad,” clarified Agrawal.
He has decided to dig a hole wherever he is and the conviction has led to the establishment of Schooglink Pvt Ltd, which builds smart tech to provide affordable quality education. Of course, this startup has had to wait till Agrawal gained professional exposure over 13 years. He has worked first in the corporate world, and later, in a startup. All through the focus has been on EDA. Yet he has always wanted to do something for society. As a giveback mechanism he has initially thought of joining the IAS. Somehow things didn’t gel.
The thought of giving back to society lingered on; some deep thinking made him reflect on his formative years. “When I looked back, I thought of my mother who has taught Mathematics at a school in BHEL Jhansi. It occurred to me that I could work in the education space and this clarity led me on,” said Agrawal, Founder and CEO of Schooglink Pvt Ltd. That’s how rural education has become the focal point. This single point agenda of making learning accessible to rural children has shaped into a startup, Schooglink Pvt Ltd in 2016, with its headquarters at Bangalore, and regional offices in Patna and Ranchi.
Schooglink is a case of the mind following heart. “Most of the rural schools are not equipped with digital learning aids like software, computers or educational videos aired on YouTube,” said Agrawal.
This revelation has initially positioned Schooglink as a social platform for the stakeholders in education. “Education requires a focused environment. Technology filters have been used to remove distractions like social media and Whatsapp,” he explained.
Consequently a streamlined platform has been put in place. With a well defined structure, it has become approachable for the school administrative system and district administrator.
As a starting point, this platform has been transparent and a fairly good one. Things have continued in this manner till a pilot project happened in a school in Gaya in 2017. Conceptualized as a solution for Right to Education Act, the pilot has initiated interactions with the district heads. Agrawal has visited government schools and saw that the student-connect was lacking. Being a techie he knew that tech based scalable education solutions will help. “India has around 14.5 lakh schools, around 85% of them are in rural India. The urban schools continue to prepare their students for the job market, while rural ones don’t even have the basics,” he reasoned. It’s the urban-rural education divide which he’s trying to address.
A new venture needs a re-look, especially in its teething phase. Outwardly everything seems fine, but objectively things are different. Inclusive learning is the missing link. This has become the core of the second version of Schooglink launched in 2018.
Understandably, the platform has expanded its base to include vernacular content (as of now, Hindi). As students cannot access learning videos, the teacher becomes the interface to deliver content.
This happens through a hybrid model, which comprises an online platform to improve learning outcomes and an off-line teacher to assist rural students. With the model in place, the next hurdle was to find teaching instructors in rural India. Perhaps anyone in his place would have probably given up.
The entrepreneur and team set out solving problems of teaching man-power in a realistic manner. Some probing revealed that most villages have a sizeable number of young graduates who dream of getting into government jobs. Just before stepping on the threshold of their career, Schooglink gives them the option of being trained and inducted into teaching. Many of them are forthcoming as it’s an additional source of income. Though unplanned, the entrepreneur has created a market for teaching instructors in rural regions.
Some of the teachers work part time, pocketing Rs 2,500/batch. A handful opts for full time jobs, earning Rs 20,000/month. Sudhir Kumar, full time young Teaching Assistant at Barh Schooglink Grassroot Centre, said, "Even if students forget what is taught in schools, they can directly revise using the Schooglink App before their exams". "Schooglink Grassroot Centres bring the best teachers directly to the students in remote rural areas", said Uttam, another full time young Teaching Assistant with Schooglink.
The thrust is on Class IX and X curriculum for State Boards and CBSE in Bihar (and now Madhya Pradesh). Five rented premises in Patna district have transformed into smart classes. “The reason for starting with Bihar was that it is one of the bottom States in the school education rankings released annually by MHRD,” said Agrawal. Described as Schooglink Grassroot Centres, these smart classes are a replacement to the traditional tuition center model after regular school hours. Special classes are conducted on Sundays for students to clear their doubts.
The content is on the cloud from which it flows to the wi-fi centres. Teachers disseminate textbook information through videos. Science experiments are captured live and relayed to the centres. Additionally, students solve question banks and test papers. These are added onto the mobile app, which goes live in all centres. Classroom sessions are engaging, as children get to see and learn many textbook lessons live. Their excitement followed by their grasping capacity has been very satisfying for Agrawal. "Whatever subjects are covered here, are really taught well. Concepts are covered through video tutorials, and then re-emphasized by the Teaching Assistant, followed by tests", says Chandani Kumari, who went on to score 92% in Maths in Bihar State Education Board (BSEB) Class X 2019 board exams. "May this initiative grow and prosper", said her father Shri Parshuram ji with gratitude, as he blessed Schooglink.
Students from the State syllabus pay Rs 300/month, while CBSE students pay Rs 500/month. The growth path is about getting the right education to children, helping them learn, as well as prepare them for competitive exams and paving the way for their better employment opportunities.
The Grassroot Centres are geo-tapped, which marks the teacher attendance. All tutorials and class progress is tracked online. The app takes care of the student attendance and fees collection.
When the IITian took his tentative steps into the education stream, there were challenges in the first year. There’s always a nagging fear whether children would adapt to the smart classes or not. Naturally, this is the first time that the children have been exposed to such learning sessions. But the results for last academic year have been phenomenal and have put these fears to rest.
Funding has been another problem to overcome. Rural sector and EdTech are always tough to fund and may not seem as lucrative in the initial years. However the IIT grooming and corporate experience has stood him in good stead. Several IIT alumni and individual investors have provided financial support.
Currently the Grassroot Centres are operational in Bihar (and getting ready for launch in Madhya Pradesh). These classes themselves double up as referrals, when Agrawal approaches district administrators for the first time. This explains the growing interest from government schools in various districts of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. This year, the startup plans to expand its footprint in Karnataka. It’s also intended to set up smart classes in 20 schools in Gaya and 50 in Madhya Pradesh.
Maybe, one day in the not too far-off future, all of rural India will be mapped by smart classes, which are scalable and outcomes are measurable.