By Kavitha Srinivasa
Delhi-based Sampark Foundation, spearheaded by Vineet and Anupama Nayar, is committed to transforming primary education in India. The foundation’s five-year plan is to reach out to 200,000 government primary schools
Vineet Nayar was at the peak of his corporate career when he took a 180 degree turn and chose to invest in social change at scale in India. The year was 2005 when Mr Nayar, former Vice Chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies started Sampark Foundation along with his wife Anupama Nayar. This time round, he decided to put his learning curve to the test and set out to solve problems in the social sector.
Till 2010, the couple supported other NGOs doing projects in education and livelihood, primarily as donors. But that did not provide them with enough results to be satisfied with what they were doing. That was when they felt they should execute the programs on their own. They then decided to focus on primary education in rural India as this segment has a sizeable community of dropouts.
Eventually, Mr Nayar moved out of HCL in 2013 to make this his life’s cause. Mr Nayar has pledged around Rs 650 crore of their personal wealth towards all that it requires to push primary education in India.
The decision to focus on education came about because of the Nayar Family’s belief and focus of importance of education in changing lives. What also helped was that it was a family of educators who also understood the challenges the sector faced and what needed to be done to change it.
The genesis behind Sampark Foundation is a belief that 'frugal innovation' and its effective implementation in partnership with the government can drive large-scale improvement in learning outcomes. “We believe in transforming education through disruptive, inclusive innovations,” said Mr Nayar, Founder Chairman of Sampark Foundation.
“The education sector is plagued by many challenges, which are more or less common across all states. Some of the socio-economic challenges due to which children do not get access to education are lack of awareness, gender discrimination and poverty. Sometimes the geography itself does not allow children to go to school regularly. But above all are challenges of the schools itself- that of infrastructure, teacher-child ratio, outdated pedagogy, lack of resources and overburdened teachers that inhibit children from accessing quality education.” explained Kusum Mohapatra, President, Sampark Foundation.
Being an IT leader, Mr Nayar has used technology as a classroom enabler. Teachers are empowered as they are one of the largest workforces in the country. The idea is to transform classrooms by empowering teachers with tools and the methodology to become agents of change.
Around 2010, the English and Math modules began with pilots, which were then scaled through collaborations with state governments. “Each state, depending on the geographical spread, has different target of outreach, but the common mandate is that the Sampark Smart Shala program has to be implemented across all government primary schools in a state. For example, in Haryana, we are in around 10,000 schools, In Himachal around 11,000 schools and 1.25 lakh schools in Uttar Pradesh,” revealed Mohapatra.
Sampark Foundation has invested in teacher building capacity to achieve activity-based pedagogy. “At Sampark, teachers are central to our entire program. They are the ones who introduce our innovations to their students and make learning in their classrooms a fun-filled activity; they monitor the progress of their students and help us assess the implementation and usefulness of our program,” said Mr Nayar, also author of Harvard Business Press bestseller "Employees First: Customer Second."
Teachers are galvanized to make classroom sessions engaging and interactive instead of rote learning. 3D teaching kits in English and Hindi are pre-loaded with modules and concepts and distributed to teachers free of cost. Described as Sampark Smart Shala™ (SSS) Program, this is a cutting-edge, frugal solution based on user-centric design thinking. It’s frugal because the cost of the entire intervention is less than $1 per child per annum.
What makes SSS tick? The answer lies in 5 critical innovations viz. a rechargeable audio device, 3-D teacher learning materials (TLMs), board games, multimedia workbooks and the Sampark mobile app. This combo packs in quite a punch. The innovative medley of games, puzzles, worksheets and classroom activities ease the learning process and improve teacher-student engagement, leading to improved learning outcomes. The animated videos rendered by the friendly voice of ‘Sampark Didi’ make the atmosphere lighter, less intimidating and engaging. Sampark Didi, a listening and speaking catalyst introduced as Sampark’s mascot, has been successfully used to help first-time English learners. It uses LSRW (listening, speaking, reading and writing)- a holistic language approach to render 112 researched lessons through songs, music and games. With years of research behind it, the Sampark Smart Shala innovation has worked wonders, as rural children have begun to comprehend English and Math.
On an annual average, 70 lakh children become better learners. The SSS Program has led to a marked increase in the number of children who answered grade-level questions in Math and English. In Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Haryana there has been a 39%, 36% and 47% improvement, respectively, in children’s performance in just one year. The teachers’ workload has reduced also by 30%.
Frugal Innovation makes Impact
Sampark Foundation is transforming learning outcomes for seven million children studying in 76,000 schools in Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Jharkhand. This makes it one of the world’s largest primary school transformation initiatives spearheaded by a foundation.
About 1,50,000 Math and English kits have been distributed to rural government schools with the help of state government collaborations. The massive scale comes from the government partnerships, while the idea can be attributed to the core team of the Foundation. Employees of Sampark Foundation, known as Sparks, visit the classes to monitor sessions and progress. Teachers use Smartphone apps to get an insight into the students’ progress. In a nutshell, innovative technology has helped achieve scale at low cost.
In 2019-2020, Rs 30 crore-Rs 35 crore are being spent towards operation costs. In 2020-2021, a budgetary allocation of Rs 50 crore-Rs 60 crore is towards programs in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.
In their second innings as philanthropists, Mr Nayar and Anupama have set 2025 as the timeframe to exit from this social venture. With ‘Frugal Innovation’ as the baseline, Mr Nayar is clear that the organization should be self-sustaining and yield results by 2025; so that he can explore innovations in another cause.
The couple was cited by Forbes in its '48 Heroes of philanthropy List 2016' and by Fortune for pedagogical innovations. Consciously Mr Nayar has revisited the wheel of life and gone full circle.