EdTech scene during COVID-19: Challenges and Dynamics, A perspective from Vinod Karate, Founder & CEO TheTeacherApp

Leader Talk

July, 2020

Vinod Karate is a social entrepreneur. An MBA graduate from Delhi School of Economics, he was a founding team member of STiR Education and helped the organization to scale their program to over 1.8 lakh teachers in India and Uganda. He started TheTeacherApp in 2016 which has been used by more than two million teachers and with Google India’s support is looking to reach the next million teachers.

Schools are shut across the country due to the Covid-19 Pandemic and children from underprivileged communities, unlike their wealthier peers, are left out from any form of learning continuity. Mr. Vinod Karate, CEO and Founder of TheTeacherApp discussed what should be the response of EdTech sector as well as governments to this challenge. In an exclusive interview with Techconnect, he also talked about his journey and challenges, which he faced when he started his second venture, TheTeacherApp.

1. TheTeacherApp, from its inception, focused on Education Technology to enable teacher capacity building. Can you elaborate on what has been the inspiration behind it and also shed light on your journey starting TheTeacherApp?

Before TheTeacherApp work, I spent a considerable amount of time engaging with teachers in India through my work with STiR Education, my first venture in the education space. Being a founding team member at STiR Education, I have had the privilege to work very closely with teachers across India. When I left STiR Education in 2016 to start TheTeacherApp, we were engaging with nearly 30,000 teachers across India through physical teacher networks.

I picked up two deep insights when I was engaging with teachers, including those who wanted to change their classroom practices and outcomes of children. One revelation was on the tech side – when we started in 2012, almost no teacher had a smartphone. A lot of teachers didn’t even have basic phones. By the time we reached 2016, that number drastically changed. Close to around 90% of teachers in STiR networks had a smartphone. That was a phenomenal change India was going through. A lot of government teachers were getting access to smartphones.

The other notable insight was that even though we were working with a lot of motivated teachers, in general, it was a big struggle for teachers to undertake massive changes. This was because conceptually they were relatively weak. It was shocking to know that even though teachers wanted to change, they themselves did not understand what the core ideas and concepts of progressive teaching are – which is the core of the National Curriculum Framework that India has adopted. The kind of education that we visualize for our children is progressive in nature, and we expect teaching instructions to be more facilitative to enable children to build reliable skills and knowledge around mathematical and language concepts. Unfortunately, a lot of our teachers just didn’t have that exposure because some of their B.Ed. and D.El.Ed. programs were not necessarily progressive.

That was our starting point at TheTeacherApp in 2016. If teachers have smartphones, how do we make the concepts of teaching mathematics, language, and other progressive concepts accessible to them in an anytime, anywhere manner?

“On one hand, we saw that teachers have access to smartphones and data, and on the other hand, we saw a big gap in teacher education. We saw that as a great opportunity to quickly improve conceptual understanding of teachers without the challenge of scale and cascade loss that usually exists in typical physical teacher training. That became our problem statement.”

Initial challenges were quite a few. The first challenge was the non-availability of high-quality content to help teachers understand concepts in a digital form. There was very little content that addressed conceptual ideas of teachers with progressive understanding in vernacular languages. Apart from other challenges, coming up with the right format for content that will work in the Indian context was one of them. We spent a good 7-8 months to figure out the right format for content for teacher consumption. The content has to be made easily accessible; it should work offline, and it should be free. It should be short, modular so that a teacher can consume in one and a half hours.Once we understood the right format for content creation, then it was all about creating processes and scaling content creation.

2. Your vision is to build a world where every teacher learns and grows anytime, anywhere at zero cost, could you enlighten us on that?

There are three levers that are dear to us, which we as an organization are constantly trying to figure out answers to. We know that TheTeacherApp, as a small non-profit organization, cannot necessarily sustain and create all the content required for the ecosystem. For example, if there are 90 lakh teachers, the amount of content required to fulfill training needs of that large heterogeneous population will be in lakhs of hours of content and there is no way an organization alone can scale and feed that kind of demand. We understood right from the beginning that we need to have two operational models to create this content.

One was demonstrative in nature. Existing content was not audio-visual and rather in PDF form. Bottom-up scratch content creation was not done. We knew that we had to demonstrate and for us, 1000 hours of learning, which is equivalent to around 200 hours of content, is a good demonstrable set, and that is what we started. By 2022, we will be unlocking a substantial amount of content and distributing it to the ecosystem by demonstrating what a good content repository looks like.

To do that, we created a framework of what we call hard spots. We reached out to different stakeholders and highly reputed organizations doing exemplary work on teacher training such as NCERT to understand these two hundred-odd hard spots that typically teachers in Class 1 to 8 struggle with. That became a framework for the TheTeacherApp academic team to create content on. A lot of our current and future content will be the products of this framework.

At the same time, we alone cannot scale to a significant number. So, we are conscious of looking out and building this capacity in the ecosystem so that there are more and more organizations and state governments who have this capacity to build content.

The other focus area is, having this content alone is not enough – there is a need to break barriers between content and teachers. A lot of it can be broken at the platform level. For this, we have a two-platform strategy – we put all our content on TheTeacherApp and Diksha app. Currently, we are working with 8 state governments and trying to work with teacher training systems to understand what kind of support mechanisms have to be created to help teachers become mature content consumers.

“By 2022, we look to reach out to over 2 million teachers who can access our content and get to a position where 40% of them are active users and are consuming or training using our content for at least 10 hours a year.”

A lot of that vision has been fast forward, thanks to the pandemic. Some of our distribution numbers have been met because, during the last six months, there has been a lot of focus on teacher training as schools have shut. Hence, a lot of adoption of our content has happened. But on the content creation side, we still need to do a lot of work to build that ecosystem.

3. In these pandemic times, we know that more than 1.5 billion students around the world are out of school due to lockdown. On one hand, we see a lot happening in the private education sector, especially in an urban setup. However, we do not see many talking about those millions of children who live in rural/semi-urban areas and are part of the government system. What do you think should be EdTech sector’s response to these challenges? (Concerning government schools and school children).

One needs to understand it’s a very complicated challenge. It is already a big challenge to deliver quality learning outcomes to children, and this pandemic has exponentially made this challenge even more difficult. Evidently, a large segment of Indian population is on the wrong side of the digital divide. Unfortunately, a lot of our children, whom we typically serve, who go to a government school, are not in a situation to have continual access to screen. Even if our teachers and the system want, they cannot provide any kind of learning continuity to them since schools are shut. Not that the private space, which has quickly moved onto Zoom lectures and such, are necessarily able to do a lot in terms of helping students learn, but they can engage students and give some kind of a structure while they are stuck at home. There is a significant loss of learning even in private schools, according to my assumptions. Zoom, however, has given privileged children at least some kind of a structure to engage them and manage their social-emotional learning.

Our data shows that many households have, on average, two or three children and only one screen, which is a smartphone. Now that the unlock phases have started, that phone is also going out of their house because their parents are going out for work. So, the availability of screens per child is less than half an hour per day compared to urban situations where most children probably have their personal screen. That is a huge challenge, and it is tough to address.

Children born between 2003 and 2014 are going to lose close to 2 years of instruction time, depending on when schools reopen. This generation, globally and especially those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, stand to make a huge sacrifice to save the older generation.

There is a little conversation around that. It’s a fundamental sacrifice that this generation is going to make. If you look at the economics and the labor market, they are bound to pay for this loss unless we are sufficiently able to bridge this instruction time, which sounds complicated. That’s the larger and first question policy level will have to answer. How do we address this loss of instruction time? Will this generation be regarded as a K14 generation that spends two more years as compared to K12 or will this generation do only K10 which will shorten their syllabus and hence be less at par? This is a very complicated problem statement, and I don’t know what the answer is.

However, I can share what has happened so far and what has been the action that we have been a part of and what we are trying to achieve. The moment when the pandemic hit and lockdown started, as a part of our first move, we made all our content available on Diksha App. We started reaching out to state governments and started creating teacher engagement plans. All state governments realize that teachers are also locked down, and perhaps they can spend a lot of time developing themselves while they are not able to get into active engagement work at this point of time.

In collaboration with state governments and other nonprofits, we collected a lot of content sent across to children through Doordarshan and WhatsApp. For teachers specifically, we worked with eight state governments and created teacher engagement plans that have shown a phenomenal uptake. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, a lot of our content has been integrated with their CM Rise program, and as part of that program, we could train over 3 lakh teachers with a completion rate of 85% across four or five courses that they have launched during the last 2 months. Similar efforts have been propped up in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh where we are seeing an amazing amount of engagement of teachers on training using our content. That was our first move.

“Currently, we are exploring how phase-2 would look like. Right now, we are developing what we are calling COVID-19 response content’.”

We are trying to create two types of content. First one is an elaborative course to prepare teachers on different aspects of blending. A lot of information about tech for blending is available, but very little is available in terms of what pedagogical concerns of blending are, how a teacher prepares herself or himself, which of the learning outcomes are blendable and which are not. These are the areas that have been less explored. This course is being produced with special and in-depth focus on these areas for teachers who are in a low resource set up, whose children are not necessarily going to get 50-60 days of face-to-face schooling even after schools reopen. This course will be launched on Teachers’ Day, 5th of September’20.

The other course is focused on teachers who are engaging children while they are stuck at home. It will involve using home as a learning environment and will include projects which students can do without much screen time.

These are two products we are launching on Teachers’ Day as COVID-19 response. We will also work with different state governments to integrate these in teacher training.

4. What are some of the expectations that you have from government systems?

So far, systems have moved quickly to engage students by either sending some content or through some other means. A lot of conversation is taking place at policy level in terms of relooking at the syllabus and abridging it, on what will happen when schools reopen.

There is a clear realization within the government setup that we cannot just move schools online. Education requires a lot of face-to-face interaction, especially in early grades. Some of these early grade skills require a lot of facilitation and a lot of facetime as it is vital for children to experience some of those ideas and learnings during early development. There is a clear understanding that it is tough for a teacher to deliver that experience through a virtual class. Meanwhile, directives in the right direction, restricting screen time for younger children are already coming.

Engaging children and giving them some kind of structure while they are stuck in the situation versus how to enable learning are two different problems. Generally, student engagement is all that can be done now, and teachers’ ability to deliver learning outcomes is restricted because some of those learning outcomes are a function of facilitation, peer to peer learning, and not just lectures and notes. Some kind of directive has to come in so that it is clear to the teacher, to the school and to the parents that what they are collectively trying to achieve right now is engaging their children, not necessarily keeping them on track as far as their development around certain competencies are concerned. Even the private schools are facing questions regarding collection of fees from parents when schools are shut. An honest conversation needs to be facilitated, and some kind of policy has to come out very quickly as the schools also have to run.

On the government side, there is a need to start planning as it is expected that next year, schools will reopen; chances are that students may not get two hundred days of instruction because of social distancing norms.

There is a need for clear direction and policy, so that schools start preparing to move in that direction. Unlike countries like UK and Germany, we do not have this kind of readiness.

“While there are unknowns about whether blended will be the new way of teaching with its inherently diverse implications, the next focus should be on when schools reopen, how we deal with it, how well we prepare our teachers and infrastructure to deal with that kind of change and readjustment of the entire curriculum.”

5. What innovative tech trends do you see in education during the pandemic?

There has been a significant change in adoption of some of the existing technologies in India. I haven’t seen any new tools emerging or innovations coming per se during the pandemic, but there is a new resolve, energy and agility towards adopting something which already existed. Nothing stopped governments and many physical training programs to explore Zoom to support teachers before the pandemic. During pre-pandemic times, phones were there, 4G was there, Zoom was there, but nobody went ahead and adopted it. Typical physical training programs run by exemplary NGOs never looked beyond WhatsApp to engage their teachers in training, never explored webinars. It’s not that these innovations happened because of the pandemic. All these tools were there even before the pandemic, but these were not necessarily exploited or adopted favorably.

“Due to the pandemic, all of us are forced into the situation; we moved and started adopting some of the already existing tools.”

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the person interviewed and not to TechConnect or EdIndia and its employees, unless explicitly stated.

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