The turtle in the race
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New Delhi: Just over 74% of Indians are literate, according to the 2011 Census. The National Sample Survey Organisation’s Social Consumption: Education report published in June 2015 pegs the rate a tad higher, at 75%. It roughly means that around 300 million people across the country aged 7 and above can’t read and write.
It is this chunk of the population that the Avdhan Foundation wants to reach.
Based in Jaipur, it makes video content of coursework for Classes VI through XII, for multiple state boards, in Hindi and English. It also has programmes for cyber literacy and teacher training.
Avdhan started with a series of small steps like Hamari Digital Class, a pilot across 150 schools in Rajasthan to take educational video content to students via mobile phones and computers, and a “community smart class” project to provide the same content through its own websites like www.bhagatsir.com and avdhanfoundation.org (now avdhanfoundation.ngo).
Two years on, Avdhan Foundation is tinkering away patiently. “Even when you want to give away content for free, it takes months to get approvals from government departments,” says Surbhi Bhagat, who co-founded the venture with her father Siddharth Bhagat in 2010.
The previous chapter
Surbhi says, “In the 1980s, while I was still at school, cousins and children from the neighbourhood came to my father (Siddharth Bhagat) to understand difficult topics in maths and accounting.” Bhagat Sr worked with state-run Rajasthan Financial Corp. for more than 30 years. In 1983, the company put him in-charge of digitizing records and organized training for him in Cobol computer language. She adds that twice, in 1999 and 2001, the company sent her father to the Indira Gandhi National Open University to understand technologies for organizations.
By the mid-2000s, father and daughter had a vague idea about offering digital literacy courses and using the Internet for educating disadvantaged youth. Surbhi studied computer engineering, and worked at IBM India to gain experience. In 2009, she joined the 10,000 Women entrepreneurship programme at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and was assigned a mentor, Ashwani Kumar Singh Rathore, now chief executive officer at Gladiris Technologies in Pune. It was Rathore who suggested the Bhagats register their educational venture as a non-governmental organization (NGO). “He advised that it would be easier for people to associate with the foundation and fund us if we were a registered NGO,” explains Surbhi, who quit her job at IBM in London in 2010 to work full-time on Avdhan.
The Bhagats started with their home base in Jaipur, talking to local schools to allow them to host free digital literacy classes and teacher-training programmes in 2011-12. The teachers were trained in how to use technology to make their lessons interesting, says Surbhi.
Simultaneously, they worked on developing their video content. In May 2010, Avdhan launched a course for CA CPT (Institute of Chartered Accountants of India’s common proficiency test), Bhagat Sr’s specialization. Surbhi reached out to her old professors. The Bhagats also contacted other subject matter experts they knew. Some of them could not teach on the Avdhan platform because they held government jobs. But they agreed to design and write the course material. “The initial focus was math and science,” she says
The digital advantage
Avdhan also started to make this video material available for free to children across 200-plus government schools around 2012. “We have to renew the permission each year; and many times schools are reluctant to take free lessons because it adds to their Internet cost (because students access the lectures in school computer labs) or they don’t see the benefit to themselves,” says Surbhi.
It has also been an uphill task to refine the technology end. Surbhi manages the tech side of Avdhan herself. One of the toughest challenges, she says, was figuring out how to compress the videos so they could be played at low bandwidth without losing quality across different operating systems including mobile. It was crucial that the writing on the board remained legible, for example, and there wasn’t so much buffering that lectures became hard to follow. “It took a long time. I basically tried several combinations—it was hit and miss till I figured it out,” she adds.
It was also a painstaking process to find teachers who were well-versed with the topic; they needed people who could deliver the lectures smoothly without errors. They had to speak clearly, write neatly and appear personable to students. She adds they haven’t found people who fit the bill for subjects like economics and chemistry in Hindi.
Surbhi says the service currently has 3,000 paying customers. It needs 100,000 students who pay a minimum of Rs.100 each to become sustainable, she adds. This would also cover the cost of free training sessions for economically disadvantaged students. “We are reluctant to take funding,” says Surbhi. “We doubt that an investor will let us carry on with the 100% literacy objective; they would just want to maximize profits.”
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.