For our audience, can you very briefly explain what Schoolnet actually is?
Schoolnet is a company that’s been there for almost 25 years, dedicated for the purpose, as we say, for democratizing education, employability, and employment. ‘The three E’s agenda’ is what we call it. We have been talking of India’s demographic dividend which can actually become a disaster if the children are not properly educated, if they do not have the necessary employable skills, and if there are not enough jobs in the market. So, Schoolnet as an organization is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 and it works towards democratizing these three E’s, which essentially means providing access to quality education at a scale, providing access to employability skills at a scale, and also connecting job seekers with the right kind of job.
Schoolnet is a group. There are three companies within the fold of Schoolnet. Schoolnet India Limited, as an organization and as an operating company, focuses on providing digitally led services to K12 schools and students. School Net has subsidiaries by the name of Learnet Skill Limited, which provides job linked vocational skill training to youth. So we have around 100 plus institutes of skills, which are like many ITI’s where we train the youth in various market oriented skill development programs and connect them with jobs. And there is a third company in which School Net is a minority shareholder. I would say it’s an associate company of ours by the name of Good Worker Technology Limited. It is a recently incubated company of Schoolnet, along with Temasek of Singapore. It is a job matching platform which provides connections between job seekers and job providers. So these are the three things that Schoolnet does.
You have said that Schoolnet has been in the industry for 25 years now. So where did this all start? How did the idea of Schoolnet originate?
So it was way back in 1997, and at that point in time, the founders thought about how to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools. India has got around 1.5 million schools, out of which around 1.1 million schools are in the government domain. And around 400,000 schools are privately operated. And out of those 400,000 schools, I would say more than 300,000 or something are basically what you call a budget private school charging fees less than Rs. 2000 a month or even lesser. And 100,000 schools are the premium categories charging more. So, the idea was how do we impact teaching and learning in schools. And that’s when we started thinking and at a scale. So, even though there were schools, the quality of learning was an issue. While India had solved the problem of access, the problem of quality learning was yet to be solved. We were thinking about how to solve it at a scale. And while thinking about this, we found that there are a couple of points which perhaps a private organization such as ours could address.
One is how do you improve the standard of teaching & learning materials in the classroom, how to make the learning environment more rich, engaging and efficient, and how to improve the efficiency of teaching inside the classroom. We felt that technology could play a role when we invest heavily in creating curriculum aligned multimedia content which was high on the engagement quotient. Today, there are several players in the country and there is a lot of content which is available but in late 90s and early 2000, there was a limited supply of such content. So, this is what we started doing. And having created that kind of content which varied from multimedia to simulation driven content to teacher lectures, videos of experiments etc, we started distributing those in CD ROMs to schools, but we felt that many of the schools did not even have the right kind of digital infrastructure in place.
So we felt that if we have to actually convert a classroom into a rich, engaging classroom, how do we do it efficiently and in an affordable manner? So, at that time, we partnered with IIT Bombay and we came up with a device known as KYAN, K stands for knowledge and YAN in Sanskrit means vehicle of knowledge. It’s a small cubicle device which has a computer, a high end projector, audio facilities, camera and interactivity inbuilt. That means if the projector projects onto any surface with an infrared pen, you can start writing on that surface and whatever you write on that surface can be converted into any kind of file and it can be pushed to students. It’s a portable device, just a single wire connection so you can take it from one classroom to another. So now, those schools which did not have the capacity to digitize every classroom, they could actually use one device to set up multiple classrooms. This device loaded with the content and service for training of teachers is what we started rolling out. This is how we started our journey in 1997.
You have already said that there’s a lot of ed-tech startups in the industry now. What makes Schoonet unique from its competitors?
Our purpose, as I explained, was democratizing education at a scale. And how can you do that on a scale? It is by leveraging technology. And when we say scale we mean how we connect and improve the quality of learning amongst masses. If you look at India’s education pyramid, you would see that the majority of the students study in government schools or affordable private schools which form the middle and bottom of the pyramid. Very few belong to the premium category. As an organization, we are committed to improving the quality of our target market, which is basically what we call the middle and bottom of the pyramid. Secondly, we follow a two fold approach. We are an organization that combines purpose with profit.
The third thing is we cater to improving the quality of learning within the school because we believe that school is one of the units of learning. How do we continue learning after school? We are an organization that caters to both in-school and after-school markets and our theory hypotheses is to build digital capacity of the schools, work with the teachers to improve their teaching capacity and through the schools provide learning substances to the students, connect the loop and synchronize learning in-school with after-school.
What are the factors that you keep in mind when you offer digital solutions to a problem?
We believe in blended pedagogy. We believe that in the segment that we work, purely self learning won’t help. You need self learning plus guided learning. We provide the agency of learning to the child and also provide assistance to the child. To make it simple, through our learning app called Geneo, we provide self-paced and guided learning. The digitized version of the textbook is available through the app where each page of the textbook contains curated content of that particular topic. The nature of the content also varies from teacher-led videos to simulation driven content to experiments etc. We apply a certain pedagogy called learn-apply-revise-assess. Whenever the child faces difficulty understanding a particular topic, they can raise a question. There are mentors available in the application, one a machine-led mentor and the other, an actual physical mentor who is behind the screen.
We have also deployed an AI tool for science and math subjects to assess and locate the child’s current state of learning to curate the learning path of that child, which is very useful to bridge the learning gap. We kind of provide the entire ecosystem of learning services to the child, both self-paced and assisted, yet retaining the agency for the child so she can decide what to study and where to start. This is true across all the consumer-led apps that we are building.
Can you elaborate on the teacher training programs that you have?
We have two kinds of training programs for teachers. The first one is for the teachers in schools which Schoolnet works with. Since we go for a blended learning, teachers are given proper training on how to offer these digital solutions to students in proper ways. They are trained on how to use the digital devices properly. We also have our own online portal for teacher training which is called Adding Dimensions through which those teachers who are interested in digital pedagogy are also trained. Recently, during the pandemic we worked with Google for education to train almost 65,000 teachers across the country on digital pedagogy. Over the years, we have trained almost five lakh teachers through our digital classroom programs.