There is a serious learning and reading deficit among Indian school children, states the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 published by the education non-profit Pratham. The study shows that those in elementary school often fail to read texts meant for lower classes.
Improper infrastructure, the lack of skilled teachers and teacher accountability are some of the reasons cited in the report that mirrors the poor state of education even after 72 years of Independence.
Priyadarshini Dey and Arina Bardhan from Kolkata learnt about the situation in 2014 when they were working as social science researchers at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta under Prof Somprakash Bandyopadhyay.
While Priyadarshini was researching how to improve the quality of education via ICTs, Arina was studying how to bring back dormant knowledge resources of the elderly in the mainstream. During their stint at the premier institution, the duo along with Jayanta Basak, a Computer Science Researcher, conducted several school surveys.
We initially studied rural schools, both private and public, across West Bengal. These schools had common problems of teacher absenteeism, poor quality of teachers, a lack of teaching-learning materials and inadequate learning environments, Priyadarshini tells The Better India.
Using one stone to kill two birds, the PhD students came up with a pilot project of e-learning and conducted several social experiments. They approached a local orphanage in Krisha Nagar and two retired teachers.
39 students were taught for six months on a video conferencing system which was an interactive two-way learning platform. Its success encouraged them to replicate a similar model in 4-5 other places in the city.
“Development and quick acceptance of this platform among students and parents from all socio-economic backgrounds led us to believe that using and expanding this mode of learning to millions of underserved students in West Bengal, meant that we needed to sustain and scale up our model,” says Arina.
The idea paved way into a full-fledged social business startup ‘NexConnect Ventures Private Limited’, which was incubated at the IIM Calcutta Innovation Park in 2017.
The objective of this edutech startup is to provide quality education to all and mainstreaming senior retired teachers using digital technologies. It is a hybrid business model where teachers earn from students in urban areas while providing quality education to students in remote rural areas almost free.
Since its inception, the startup has impacted 850 students (including children and elderly), 30 teachers, and eight villagers-turned-social entrepreneurs. Moreover, it has conducted around 3,500+ hours of online live classes.
How Distance Learning Works
‘NexConnect Internet Schools’ are physical study centres (franchises), established in rural areas, where the startup looks after the regular course and Board-specific regional learning materials, while infrastructure such as computers, projectors, TVs and internet are provided by the franchisees.
“The local enablers are mostly rural adult students who are looking for better work opportunities. We focus on creating women rural entrepreneurs who get fewer opportunities to be involved in a lucrative job,” says Priyadarshini.
There are ten such centres spread across several districts of West Bengal and Jharkhand. Meanwhile, teachers from urban areas are selected based on certain criteria, like years of experience and educational qualifications.
One of the most daunting tasks for Priyadarshini and Arina was to convince parents in rural areas.
“Since our process is disruptive, i.e. going against the conventional methods of teaching, acceptance is rare. Many parents do not trust the e-learning format, fearing a lack of personal attention,” says Arina.
However, with time, the number of children attending the supplementary classrooms increased. Today, students from classes 1-12 visit the centres for an hour to study subjects like Math, English, Social Sciences and Science. Vocational training in spoken English, soft skills, entrepreneurship, computer basics, stitching and tailoring is also given to adult learners including rural women.
Centres and teachers are given login credentials, and as per the timetable, they attend the classes. A minimal fee between Rs 100-200 is charged from the students per month.
A digital plan is formulated by the startup that comprises everyday lesson plans, lecture divisions, and digital content in the form of PowerPoint presentations. This is used by in-service teachers at the time of lecture delivery in class.
A Retired Teacher And Student On Distance Learning
To understand the ground reality and the impact of NexConnect, The Better India spoke to a class 7 student from Kalanabagram, Burdwan town, West Bengal and a retired teacher from Kolkata.
Anindita Roy has been a Math teacher for more than two decades and is a month-old at the startup.
She says, I have taught hundreds of students, and I thought that my teaching experience here would be no different. However, it is a delight as the rural kids are keen to learn. They know the importance of having a good teacher. E-learning is, in fact, better, as students can interact with me one-on-one. I am happy to make my contribution.
Suman Baag has been associated with the startup for more than a year. His grades and interest in education had increased, he says. “After school hours, I come here every day with my colony friends. In my previous tuition, the teacher would be absent on most of the days, and we did not get personal attention. The new methods of learning here, have helped me a lot,” shares the 14-year-old.
Difficulties And Future
Every startup has its own share of challenges, and NexConnect is no exception.
Technical problems include power and internet cuts, and natural disasters. “Both students and teachers suffer whenever there is a technical snag. We have to give them offs. However, internet and power supply have improved since we started,” says Arina.
The IIM Researcher Associates are also at the receiving end of people’s backlash. “The local tutors feel that we are eating on their business. Women entrepreneurs often get threat calls for investing in the learning centres,” says Priyadarshini.
The startup aims to expand learning centres across the country to other developing nations. For the same, it is looking for collaborations.
“NexConnect aspires to bridge the information and knowledge divide between the rural and urban areas by providing regular academic and non-academic assistance to students and adult learners in rural areas. These non-academic subjects taught by experts and senior citizens play a crucial role in igniting values, and morals, and ultimately, develop students holistically,” the duo signs off.
Here’s a demo of distance teaching:
To know more, look up NexConnect’s website or write to Arina on firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)