Mumbai: New app brings school along with teachers and exams to the smartphone

Updated: Mar 25, 2018, 11:41 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

IIT-IIM alumnus creates app, Anytime Anywhere School Vidyalaya, complete with teachers and exams, for those unable to get to a brick-and-mortar one

Poonam Vishwakarma, 28, who originally hails from Chhattisgarh, and works as a maid in Mumbai, has been attending classroom sessions for Std VI, on the app for the last four months
Poonam Vishwakarma, 28, who originally hails from Chhattisgarh, and works as a maid in Mumbai, has been attending classroom sessions for Std VI, on the app for the last four months

It was in the year 2000, when Poonam Vishwakarma's life took an unexpected turn. Until then, the young girl, who resided in a small village in Chhattisgarh, would spend her days poring over her school textbooks, mulling what life would be like, if she became a doctor or teacher.

But, right after I completed Std V, I fell sick," recalls Vishwakarma, unsure of what illness had afflicted her. What she, however, remembers is that she couldn't go to school for the next three years. "By the time I got better, it was too late to start again," she says.

Today, Vishwakarma, 28, works as a maid in Mumbai, juggling chores between homes in Malad. Her only dream is that her eight-year-old son, who is currently studying at her hometown in Chhattisgarh, doesn't share her fate. Four months ago, when the house-help learned of Anytime Anywhere School (AAS) Vidyalaya — a mobile app that serves as a virtual school — from one of her employers, she secretly enrolled. "I didn't want to lose the opportunity to study again," she says. The 18-year gap notwithstanding, Vishwakarma is one of the brightest students, from among 2,500 active users across India, who have registered with this app.

Vikas Kakwani, founder of AAS Vidyalaya. Pics/Satej Shinde
Vikas Kakwani, founder of AAS Vidyalaya. Pics/Satej Shinde

The brainchild of IIT-IIM alumnus Vikas Kakwani, 46, the schooling and e-learning app, which went live in September last year, is a first-of-its-kind platform to bring an entire school on the phone.

Operating exactly like a regular school with a dedicated class-teacher, timetables, subject periods and regular assessments, the app hopes to reach out to students,  especially those living in the remotest parts of the country, who lack accessibility to good schools, but have a smartphone with a decent Internet connection.

"While we are all aware of the potential of the Internet, it has been most under-utilised in the field of education," says Kakwani. "I couldn't help thinking how we could, with the help of a phone, use it to bring education to everyone," he adds.

The app works like a classroom. The system generates a time-table for the student, citing the number of video sessions they are expected to watch daily, and an attendance sheet, marking them for every log in
The app works like a classroom. The system generates a time-table for the student, citing the number of video sessions they are expected to watch daily, and an attendance sheet, marking them for every log in

Education for all
Kakwani, who is a self-proclaimed geek, and technology lover, with over 20 years of experience across FMCG, telecom and real estate sectors in India and the Middle-East, first stumbled upon the idea of building an e-learning app over six years ago, when visiting his brother in Singapore and experiencing the brilliance of 30Mbps Internet speed on his phone. "At the time, India only had around 2 to 3 Mbps speed," says Kakwani, who then, was heading one of the telecom circles that had launched 3G in India. "But, we already knew that one telecom giant was laying down 4G cables in the country." "My prediction was that in another few years, the Internet would become free or subsidized, because the entire business eco-system was going to sit on it," says Kakwani.

The app works like a classroom. The system generates a time-table for the student, citing the number of video sessions they are expected to watch daily, and an attendance sheet, marking them for every log in

It was while thinking about the possibilities of having high-speed, affordable Internet in the country, that he recalls examining how it could be tapped in the area of schooling. "But, I didn't want to focus on those students, who already had access to education," says Kakwani, while adding how most of the current, online educational platforms, caters to this set, which makes up only for 12 per cent of the student population. "I wanted to concentrate on those kids living in the remotest parts of the country, who absolutely didn't."

According to the 2011 Census, 8.4 crore Indian children don't attend school. On the other hand, India currently has a smartphone user base of over 30 crore, which is expected to cross 65 crore by 2019. Statistics proved that a virtual school could easily be the answer to that problem, explains Kakwani.

The app works like a classroom. The system generates a time-table for the student, citing the number of video sessions they are expected to watch daily, and an attendance sheet, marking them for every log in

The idea, however, didn't take off until 2016, when Kakwani quit as CEO with a mid-sized company, to launch his start-up, with hopes of revolutionising online education. It took him another year-and-a-half to launch the app.

How the e-school works
The AAS Vidyalaya app, which has been designed on the Android platform and is available on Google Play store, has seen over 10,000 downloads since its launch.

It works like a classroom set-up, just that students can attend school from anywhere, while teachers can work from home. Parents, on the other hand, can seamlessly monitor day-to-day progress of the students. On downloading the app, one gets the option of registering either as a student, parent, teacher or institute. The student needs to fill in basic details, which includes name, phone number, Aadhaar card details (optional), preferred language of communication, and class. Currently, the app only provides classroom sessions for Std VI, VII and VIII, with Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum, prescribed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). "Based on my research, I found that while there are a total of seven lakh primary schools in the country, there are only four lakh secondary schools," says Kakwani.

Anjali Suman Mishra
Anjali Suman Mishra

The National Sample Survey (NSS), 2015, also revealed that only 52 per cent of the student population attended secondary schools, as opposed to 83 per cent kids, who were pursuing primary education. "There are several reasons for this — mostly secondary education is not affordable. Also, in villages, municipal schools with secondary schooling are located very far off. In order to fill this huge gap, I decided to begin with the higher grades," explains Kakwani.

While one can access the app for free for a month, registering with the virtual school comes at a minimal cost of Rs 299 per month. Once registered, the system automatically generates a time-table for the student, citing the number of video sessions they are expected to watch daily, and an attendance sheet, marking them for every log in. The student is also assigned a class teacher — based on their language preference — who provides timely feedback in a school report card, which can be accessed both, by the parents and students, and can additionally, be used as a chat room to exchange queries. Students can also video conference with teachers, if they find themselves struggling with a topic.

Richa Seth and Leena Kakwani work as teachers on the app
Richa Seth and Leena Kakwani work as teachers on the app

All the classes, for subjects ranging from English, Maths, Social Science, Science, as well as other languages, are pre-recorded in the company's Malad office, or at the teacher's residence using an interface provided by them. Currently, there are 12 teachers registered with the app. "We hope to reach out to more teachers, especially housewives. We are not looking for teaching experience, as much as we are looking for somebody with a passion for teaching," says Kakwani, whose wife Leena Kakwani, 42 has registered herself as a teacher.

The classes — all held in Hinglish, so that they can be easily followed by students — can also be rated by the students and teachers. "If we get a poor rating, we record the session again based on the feedback we receive," he says. Additionally, there is a choice-based question test, which is held after completion of every chapter. If a student gets less than 50 per cent, he/she will be expected to attend the class again, and give a re-test before moving on to the next chapter.

NGOs and other social organisations can also use the app to teach larger groups of kids, by registering as institutes and setting up the necessary technology — projector and speakers — thus, doubling up as classrooms. After completing Std VIII, the system will also connect the student to the nearest municipal school, so that he/she can appear for the final exam there. "There are plans to include higher grades and more boards, but we intend to continue with this model for at least a year,"
says Kakwani.

The AAS Vidyalaya app's next academic year begins in April, and they intend to follow the term like in regular schools. This helps maintain discipline, informs Kakwani, who has been spreading awareness about the app at several municipal schools and housing societies that hire maids and helps, who could be encouraged to use the model to study.

Future forward
Richa Seth, 48, who is a Maths and Science teacher with AAS Vidyalaya, was among the first faculty members to join. "I have taught in classroom set-ups before, and was slightly apprehensive when Kakwani told me about his idea. I remember finding it odd speaking into the video camera, while imagining that I was talking to a classroom full of children. But, barring the initial hesitation, it has been smooth until now."

Seth says that on average she receives at least 15 queries from students daily. "Some doubts are so basic, that you realise how these kids may have struggled in a school set-up," says Seth.

Thirteen-year-old Anjali Suman Mishra, who studies at Queen Mary High School, in Pimpalwadi, Malad East, learned about the app from her father, who works as a driver for Kakwani. "I was previously studying in a vernacular school and hence, barely understood anything that was taught at my new school," says the Std VIII student.

Leena, who has a Masters in Psychology, and is Mishra's teacher on the app, says the teenager grappled with many basic concepts. "Since she was anyway going to school, we suggested that she doesn't quit and instead, try using the app alongside for a while."

Mishra spends two hours every evening on the app. "As I use my father's phone, I have to wait for him to return from work to study online," she tells us. "After enrolling here, I have begun enjoying going to school more. If I have doubts with subjects taught in my school, I message my teachers on the app, and they are always happy to help." She also doesn't find studying under two different set-ups daily, cumbersome. "It's like going for extra-classes," she says.

Meanwhile, Vishwakarma is looking forward to meeting her son, who will be visiting Mumbai during the school summer vacations next month. "I have learned so many new things in my new school, I can't wait to share it with him," she says.

Also read - Mumbai: Now parents can use an app to solve school issues

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