A UNICEF report revealed that the shutting down of 1.5 Mn+ schools in India in 2020 affected the education of 247 Mn+ children in elementary & secondary schools
The report further revealed that 6 Mn+ girls & boys were out of school even before the pandemic in the remote & underserved locations of the country
To help young people from remote areas access quality education, BYJU’S has launched Education For All and served 3.4 Mn students in one year
The Covid-19 crisis in India forced more than 1.5 Mn schools to shut operations, damaging the learning and well-being of millions of students. A 2021 UNICEF report said that more than 247 Mn children were affected in elementary and secondary schools alone. Though, this proved to be the tipping point for edtechs — whose remote learning programmes helped the disrupted education system — the rot was much deeper.
The UNICEF report further revealed that more than 6 Mn girls and boys were out of school even before the outset of the health crisis in the remote and underserved locations of the country. The woeful narrative of K-12 students was attributed to macro issues like digital, rural-urban and gender divides.
The notion, in general, was that the pandemic had widened the chasm, and edtechs were unlikely to play a critical role in bridging such a fundamental gap.
But BYJU’S, India’s most valued edtech startup, is on a mission to prove this wrong with its Education For All (EFA) initiative, for which it recently roped in Lionel Messi as the global brand ambassador.
Launched in the thick of the pandemic in 2020, EFA has partnered with more than 130 NGOs across India with the aim to provide quality education to millions of underprivileged/underserved students.
It does so through lessons, developed by a team of subject matter experts and content specialists from across the globe and education boards, ensuring these are in sync with the standard course material.
“Simply put, EFA offers high-quality educational content at zero cost to children from underprivileged backgrounds and it is being scaled across India to ensure that no child is left behind,” said Mansi Kasliwal, VP of social initiatives at BYJU’S.
The programme thrives on two key pillars – a cloud-based app and a network of local partners.
Its partner network includes NGOs, government and private schools, and any other entity working on educating children. As these local partners already have organisational credibility and have volunteers on the ground whom the local people trust, this kind of tie-up has widened the programme’s reach, elaborated Kasliwal.
Through these partnerships, it gets student data (board, preferred language, level of education and more), based on which the startup provides them with the content relevant for their grade. These partners are provided with app licences renewed every three years.
The content provided by the edtech behemoth can be used for self-learning by the student directly or to be taught by teachers — via the app or with the books shipped by BYJU’S. For the ease of users in remote locations, the app can be used across a variety of smart devices and can function on very low bandwidth.
In a one-to-one interaction with Inc42, Kasliwal spoke about the tech innovation at the EFA, its challenges, impact, reach and the way forward. Here are the edited excerpts.
Inc42: You said that the EFA ideation was already in the works when the pandemic hit. How could you ensure seamless execution at the time? What were the biggest challenges?
Mansi Kasliwal: Many of the challenges were obvious, like electricity, internet availability, and access to the students in remote areas specially during Covid, but we faced two major hurdles.
The first was the introduction of vernacular languages. BYJU’S has always focussed on the education of school-going urban children, the minute we decided to go to the underserved regions, adding vernacular languages became our priority. Our teams worked day and night to have the curricula up in three months. And we added eight additional languages.
The second challenge was the mindset change, how to introduce students to an entirely new way of learning, very different from conventional education. Even though the children were doing it, they didn’t know how to adapt quickly to technology-based learning.
In that sense, the first level of engagement was challenging. But that’s where our NGO partners really helped.
Inc42: How are you using tech throughout the programme? How has it eased the journey and the mission for you?
Mansi Kasliwal: At the core of it, edtech is very powerful because of the speed at which we can scale. It has allowed us to execute the entire plan, including content sharing and distributing, with very little human intervention. While we needed some facilitation on the ground we were able to get children onboarded on the platform seamlessly because of the user friendly and intuitive design of the learning app.
Once we partnered with the key players, the transmission and multiplication of that reach was quite fast.
Our tech usage has given us various advantages. One such benefit is personalising every student’s journey. It enables us to provide an equal opportunity so that every student can access the same high-quality content regardless of their geographical location.
Another advantage is real-time feedback. As the students are on a technology platform, we get constant feedback on what is happening on the ground. As the saying goes, ‘You cannot improve what you cannot measure’. That’s something we take very seriously.
We use that information to feed our system and improve it constantly. This exercise covers everything – the content, the concerns children have (regarding the new learning system), the format they prefer, how much time they spend on the app and the subjects on which they spend maximum time.
Constantly tracking and measuring these factors gives us insights into students’ learning patterns and how we can make that experience better for them.
Inc42: Apart from local partners, do you have other measures to solve tech or content-related challenges?
Mansi Kasliwal: Our local partners are fully equipped and capable of solving the queries that come their way. Apart from that, there are three-four different ways to reach out to us.
We have a toll-free helpline number, and children can also write to us. We have also set up a special mentoring team who can converse in vernacular languages and respond to children’s questions.
Inc42: Can you take us through some critical initiatives within the programme and the impact you have created so far?
Mansi Kasliwal: The EFA initiative is our umbrella programme. It is very broad, and we keep it like that on purpose because it covers a lot of offerings. However, I am very proud of two specific initiatives.
One of them is NITI Ayog’s Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) which focusses on developing some of the most backward districts in the country, where we joined hands with them to develop for the education segment, last year.
We have scouted some talented students from these regions and will train and work with them in the next two years to help them compete with their urban peers in competitive exams like JEE and NEET entrance tests.
So far, we have selected more than 3K students across 67 aspirational districts to attend free coaching classes.
We also run a programme with the West Bengal libraries department. The focus is on the public libraries that have a digital infrastructure but are witnessing a drastic dip in footfall. BYJU’S has shared its content with them as well, as part of its free education plan.
We are conducting various other state-level programmes with the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and more. Other than that, we have many programmes with NGOs working with terminally ill children who can’t go to school, children who are victims of child labor, children in flood inflicted areas of north-east and more.
We have a mix of students who have either stopped or never attended school and first-generation learners. I am especially proud that girls account for 50% of the beneficiaries.
Inc42: How is the tech acting as an enabler and adding value to the student’s learning journey? How are you countering overexposure to tech at the grassroots level?
Mansi Kasliwal: I can completely understand the discomfort that comes from ‘too much tech’. But what’s also important is how we use the technology at each level.
As responsible educators, we need to see if the child is leveraging tech, how that utilisation can be meaningful, and how it can be more efficient and impactful. We focus on using the strengths of the tech enabled learning to improve the educational outcomes.
Additionally, we have included many physical touchpoint activities apart from our app, especially as we understand many of these areas do not have internet or electricity for days. To counter that, we have also shipped a lot of BYJU’S books to several libraries through our partner network.
While planning our projects we focus on what is needed, not what we have. Once we have assessed the needs of specific regions or students, we deploy solutions accordingly. Therefore we have a variety of project archetypes in our portfolio ranging from different stakeholder engagements to different degrees of tech and non-tech interventions.
Overall, our intent is to ensure one thing; geography and financial constraints should not be a reason for any child to not receive good quality fundamental education.