Infosys Chairman and Co-founder, Nandan Nilekani, and Rohini Nilekani, are the other two Co-founders of the EkStep Foundation. Both Nandan and Rohini are signatories of The Giving Pledge — a commitment made by billionaires to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.
Infosys is one of the world’s largest IT firms and Nandan Nilekani’s involvement places the EkStep Foundation in a strong position to leverage technology in pursuit of education — the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4).
The EkStep Foundation was set up in 2015. The idea was to think big: they aimed for a big goal to reach 200 million children in India and improve their access to learning opportunities and help them achieve improved learning outcomes.
At EkStep, they have a sense of urgency and believe that social good can be done at the scale of the entire population. Time is of the essence since every single year there are 20 million children in India who enter and exit the education system. Therefore, every year wasted is tremendously costly. In addition to speed and scale, the third key consideration is ensuing their work is sustainable.
Organisationally speaking, the EkStep Foundation is relatively small and only has approximately 40 members of staff — considering they’re reaching more than 200 million children, this is quite a good ratio.
Shankar sheds light on the technology and methods they’re embracing to improve education for millions of children. One of the challenges is ensuring their approach is compatible with the sheer scale and diversity of India, with 25+ formal administrative languages and hundreds of dialects.
The technology should also help the existing ecosystem of actors since at EkStep they’re not interested in becoming yet another player in this field but, rather, they wish to facilities and improve the capacity of what’s already in place. The technology should fit in with the existing constraints and habits of the chidden, the schools and the education systems in place.
At EkStep, they thought long and hard about the possible ways in which they could help and ultimately ended up focusing on the humble textbooks that are delivered to millions of households annually.
In India, a billion textbooks are printed and distributed to children across the country entirely for free every year. A child may lack many things but a textbook is unlikely to be one of them.
Instead of thinking of the textbook as an outdated technology, they looked at imbedding QR codes so that when you access these QR codes you get content that’s relevant to the chapter and book you’re studying from. It’s a gateway to content that is interactive, trusted and relevant to the learner. It is a simple but effective approach.
QR codes tend to be present within each chapter; perhaps 10 to 15 QR codes per book, on average.
Shankar provides examples: For instance, a 2nd grade student follows the sequencing of chapters in her textbook and the QR code in each chapter provides free content that is created and curated by her school authority — so it’s trusted.
In a chapter about fractions, for instance, the content could show a video of a cake sliced into 5 pieces, so as to show the concept of fractions. This, in turn, could be followed by questions or a practice test, which then helps you know whether the content has been understood well.
One could say the QR code is somewhat equivalent to a GPS system within the textbook. It’s like that 2nd grade student is telling the system, here I am right now, I am looking at fractions and, yes, I am understanding this content well.
A fascinating aspect of this approach is that the content being shown to that student can change dynamically so that at the start of the year it’s more about explanations, while towards the end of the year it might be more about revision and mock texts. Each individual state in India decides on content and how to sequence it.
In most traditional education systems, there is only limited (if any) feedback of what content individual children are finding engaging. Now, with these QR codes and targeted, dynamic content, they do have remote sensing of data that enables the education system to understand patterns, content engagement levels, learning outcomes, mock exam outcomes and what content students are spending most time on. Are they focusing more on writing, mathematics, science etc?
They created technology as a digital infrastructure and they’ve called it ‘Sunbird’ — Shankar remarks that one can think of it as a kind of Linux equivalent for learning. Open infrastructure and free. Anyone who’s interested is welcome to have a look at it and embrace this platform if they wish, irrespective of where in the world they might be.
It wasn’t straightforward to be allowed to operate in around 28 states in India and to reach the 200 million children they had originally envisioned. But, with a clear focus on their original scale target and by not being precious about their brand, they have succeeded and are impacting millions of children. They decided that the EkStep brand should never be in the picture, they collaborated with many others and they made their solution open source, free, and available to anyone who wishes to use it.
A question that often comes up pertains to the reality that many children simply don’t have mobile phones or smartphones that can access QR codes. Indeed, that is a limitation Shankar recognises. He mentions that half of children in urban India may not have access to mobile phones, and that number increases even further in rural India. However, he points out that every teacher has a device. So, if the teacher accesses the content they can teach better and enhance the traditional chalkboard they have in the classroom.
Moreover, as a result of COVID-19 schools are closed. So the government is coming out with TV programmes that also have QR codes that are connected to textbooks. They’re connecting the physical to the digital, trying out innovative ideas and aiming to ensure that no child should suffer for lack of access to technology.
Shankar’s key takeaway: When you’re thinking about making a social impact, think big. Don’t constrain yourself by the limited resources you have, because whether you think big or think small, the amount of thinking is the same. When you’re thinking big, don’t worry about not having a perfect plan, or about limited resources or worry about failing. Shankar has seen great things happen when you set a goal that is way above your means to achieve but it’s so inspiring that you start to attract people around you who are equally inspired and who help you achieve your goal. With that in mind, if you let go of the need to control the journey, be prepared for a fun ride. And, miraculous things will happen. Even if you don’t achieve your goal, you will end at a place that is far better than what you would have had if you had thought small and only achieved that.
Visit The Do One Better! Podcast website for guest bios, episode notes and useful links. Please subscribe to this podcast on your favourite app and share widely with others -- thank you!