Venkat Sriraman, a former corporate professional found his calling when he entered the development sector. His dream of educating rural India is being fulfilled through his NPO eVidyaloka, established in 2011. While technology has resulted in a noninvasive experience, eVidyaloka is in the process of unveiling a mobile app. Sriraman shares his enthusiasm as he speaks about the social enterprise and forthcoming plans.
By Kavitha Srinivasa
eVidyaloka (www.evidyaloka.org), a Bangalore-based not for profit (NPO) organization uses technology to supplement classroom teaching in various government schools in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Telangana.
How do you select the schools for conducting digital classrooms? Please, can you run me through the process? What was it like ‘before & after’ Skype?
When we look at the education scenario in India, the shortage of teachers in government schools in remote rural locations has resulted in poor learning and low attendance among students. We identify such schools by partnering with local NGOs, which are sustainable and have a grassroots level presence. So far we’ve partnered with 18 NGOs in seven states. Once the partner is identified, we use technology to create a seamless non-invasive experience.
Our next criterion is to ensure that broadband connectivity with the school is feasible. We work with the head master (HM) to establish the digital classroom (DC), complete with CPU, monitors, wide angle camera, broadband and modem. We teach English, Math and Science for fifth-eighth grade classes, wherein each class has an average of 20 students, comprising boys and girls.
The classroom looks like any other classroom except that it has a 32 inch LCD screen through which a teacher addresses the children virtually. Children raise their hands and ask questions like they normally do. Skype is the vehicle for Class delivery. The remote Centre has an eClassroom Skype ID which is shared with the assigned Teacher Volunteers and vice versa. Backup inverters ensure that classes function without interruptions.
How do these digital classrooms supplement what is being taught in the school? Please give examples.
We are not a replacement to school teaching, but we supplement what is not being covered in the class by taking lessons and opening it out to questions from the students, apart from showing video clips. We align our classes with the school timetable. Typically some periods are left out because there are no teachers to take it forward. That’s where we fit in, and overall we conduct 18 hours online classes every week.
Students come to the class in an unbiased manner. Instead of getting intimidated, they are curious upon seeing a virtual teacher. They get excited as they realize it’s someone real and not a robot. This triggers off a thought process.
Children are able to connect facts beginning with an Internet connection that comes through a mobile tower that connects to a mobile phone and comes to the classroom through a screen. Once the child gets this perspective right, they get hooked on. The classroom attendance has also increased by 20%-25%.
How have you empowered the local communities? How many Volunteer Teachers do you have?
We have over 1,000 volunteer teachers on board, of these 350 are actively working with us. Typically, a Hindi speaking volunteer will be assigned with a Centre in Jharkhand while a Tamil speaking volunteer for a Centre in Tamil Nadu.
There are over 1000+ volunteer teachers on board, of these 600+ are actively contributing. Volunteers are reached out through various channels such as Digital Marketing tools like Google AdWords/Facebook Ads, Social Media Posts, Word of Mouth, Emailers, Corporate Online Volunteering, United Nations Volunteering (www.onlinevolunteering.org).
Besides that, we also have a campaign - 'Gaon Padhao, Bhavishya Banao' - Teach Today, Transform Tomorrow (www.evidyaloka.org/volunteer) for volunteers.
Can you give details about the mobile app, & when was it launched? What are its features & what is the expected outcome?
The mobile app is for those people who voluntarily sign up as our teachers. It will be a platform for teachers to exchange ideas and post live videos. The app is designed for teachers to mark classroom attendance and ensure that classroom delivery IT system is intact. The app which is ready in June will soon be operational. Once this falls into place, we can conduct online Parent Teachers Association (PTA) meetings and establish a rhythm of monthly meetings. In fact, after classroom enrollments have improved, parents are also showing interest in their children’s studies.
The idea of a mobile app came from our previous experience of connecting with Facebook. We had already whetted the market with Facebook’s initiative Facebook at Work in 2016. Facebook at Work has been named as Workplace by Facebook.
The initiative is a new way for colleagues to interact at the workplace for better outcomes. However, Facebook at Work is free for non-profits and we are among the early NPOs to sign up with Facebook. This collaboration has resulted in a connecting platform for teachers to communicate with each other.
What are the new partnerships/government MoUs that you have signed this year & how do you plan to take it forward?
As of now, we have 92 centres in seven states viz. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Telangana. In Jharkhand, we have been approached by the district administration to set up digital classes in five blocks of the model schools in Jharkhand, which will be rolled out this year.
Besides that, by end-July we plan to increase this to 110 centres in the existing states. Our goal for the financial year 2017-2018 is to expand to newer locations and spread our footprint to 200 centres. Three new states will be on our radar this year. We have shortlisted five states which are a combination of Hindi and non-Hindi speaking states.
Can you give an overall comment on education in rural India?
The real demographic dividend lies in rural India; this is where the India growth story happens. There is potential in rural remote locations. The aspirations of people in these places are no different from those in urban India. From the education standpoint, we need to empower them, provide them access to quality education and prevent migration. Right now, most NextGens from rural India are migrating to urban pockets. It’s necessary to create opportunities for them within their region. The Government of India (GoI) is doing a great job through scalable interventions and partnerships. We need to give rural people access to education and help them shed their inhibitions.
What prompted you to move from a corporate job to the development sector? What are the corporate boardroom lessons that you have brought to the social enterprise, please elaborate?
After working in leading IT firms, I decided to move out to establish eVidyaloka in Bangalore.
I see it as a change in profession, a shift from the corporate sector to the development sector, wherein the latter brings a fair share of complexities and opportunities. For instance, rolling out IT to 200 schools and making it happen is an opportunity and also a challenge. It's the drive for making technology work for larger social good and the desire to apply the technical and leadership competencies, gained from the corporate experience, in the social section, to build scalable solutions. High-value solutions need to be given to rural India; only then will India as a country reap benefits.