Building Edtech in India: Go Slow or Go Home

From EdSurge, Tony Wan, Nov 15, 2013.


Talk about a true case of the little guy cleaning up the big guy’s mess.

For the past two years, Zaya co-founder and CEO Neil D’Souza has triumphed over astonishing odds in his mission to deliver digital educational resources to developing regions. He’s piped digital books to nomadic herders in remote Mongolia and Khan Academy videos to orphanages in Indonesia.

Now his sights are set on India, beginning with his hometown, Mumbai. But first he must overcome the pessimism in the wake of the muddle created by Educomp, India’s largest edtech company.

“There’s a lot of skepticism in India about education technology. Teachers and schools has seen so many attempts fail in the last eight, ten years,” says D’Souza.

He’s determined to make a difference. In January 2012, D’Souza, a former Cisco engineer, set up his headquarter in Mumbai to implement and scale affordable blended learning labs in schools and tutoring centers. All the equipment required fits neatly in a backpack. For roughly $3,000, the ZayaLabKit comes with Aakash tablets, earphones, speakers, a projector, a battery pack and most importantly, the ClassCloud, the server that delivers learning content, assessments, and a learning management system to the tablets in a local intranet network.

But educators, entrepreneurs and investors in India have learned that technology doesn’t always deliver results.

A recent report on the uses of edtech in affordable private schools in Hyderabad found that “many school leaders and teachers are unaware of how to use technology to its full capacity,” and as a result “techno-classes and computers [are] often used minimally or not at all.”

This was the case for Educomp, the country’s largest provider of hardware and digital technologies for schools. In 2003, it introduced the Smart Classsolution, a package of interactive whiteboards and digital resources installed in over 14,000 schools around the country.

In April 2013, Forbes India uncovered serious problems underlying this rapid growth. Among them: the company committed large capital investments upfront by installing whiteboards and other hardware that went unused. Many never paid for support and services. Without this revenue, the companydefaulted on paying some employees for months and recently let go of 3,500. This downsizing meant that some paying customers received lackluster service, and 200 of them recently filed a lawsuit against the company.

One analyst who has watched Educomp closely believes the Smart Class strategy “was built on a very hairy concept that simply putting multimedia hardware in front of teachers and students would work.” He estimates that nearly 10,000 schools currently have inoperable Educomp hardware. “One of the biggest negative legacies that Educomp will leave,” he says, “is that public investors and schools will be very wary and pessimistic about education technology.”

By contrast, D’Souza believes that building real change in India’s education system will take long and patient work. For the past two years, he’s been living that principle as he prototyped his mobile “Education Hotspots” in rural regions to prove the technology could deliver Khan Academy videos where little or no Internet infrastructure existed. His experiences taught him that proper training was just as crucial as the technology itself.

His customers are chosen carefully to ensure that teachers are willing to adopt not just new technology, but even new ways of teaching and managing a classroom. Every Zaya teacher undergoes a multi-day orientation on properly setting up and managing the ZayaLabKit and also learn about blended learning models in U.S. schools like KIPP and Rocketship. Weekly check-ins from company staff provide ongoing support.


Zaya currently runs ten labs: Six are set up in schools run by Teach for India in Mumbai and Pune, three are after-school programs in the suburbs outside Mumbai, and one is on the second floor of the Zaya office. Each lab operates on a rotational model where students split time between peer-to-peer group work, interacting with the teacher and working on tablets. Altogether, the labs serve about 600 students.

It’s a far cry from the thousands of schools where Educomp hoped to operate. But even with this modest number, Zaya believes it can do one thing that other Indian edtech companies have neglected: show improvements in students’ learning gains.

The Zaya tablets come with assessments that periodically measures students’ math and reading skills. Based on their performance, the system assigns them to different learning tracks (below, at, or above grade level) where they receive instruction based on their needs. As students work through the 600+ math lessons and books from companies like CK12 Braingenie andMangoReader, progress and performance are tracked and analyzed.

It’s still early days and initial results won’t be available until the end of the year. The goal for 2014 is to have 30 labs around the country, a number that D’Souza believes will offer a large enough sample size to measure aggregate learning outcomes.

“Our team [of 15] is well aware that it will take some time for us to prove holistic change. We will grow at a more careful pace while collecting data and refining our process,” says D’Souza.

In the meantime, financial sustainability is an issue for Zaya. So far, parents of students in the after-school labs pay 150-200 Rupees (U.S. $2 to $3) per month, and the company charges schools $2,000 per year for in-school labs. It’s currently not enough to cover operational costs, which D’Souza says can be as high as $10,000 a year for each lab. He’s reached out to local companies, investors and philanthropists for support, and so far has eight sponsors pledged for 2014.

The rest of the world is watching, too. Back in 2011–when D’Souza first started–he took second prize in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Global Education Challenge. This year he was a runner-up at the 2013 Gratitude Awards and was chosen as an Echoing Green Fellow in June. He’s also received encouraging signs from investors in the U.S. and India as he goes about raising institutional capital for Zaya. “These impact investors claim to be very patient,” says D’Souza. “I’ll find out in two years how patient they are.”

Patience from investors is a rare quality indeed. But given what happened to India’s biggest and fast-growing edtech company, getting real learning results may well be worth the wait.

11 Real Ways Technology Is Affecting Education Right Now

The amount of technology flooding into classrooms may vary widely, but there’s no denying that it’s a red-hot trend in education. A new study further bolsters this idea as it’s found that digital devices are saving students time, are widely accepted, and are actually making students more likely to do their homework.

All these factoids and more are presented in the study by CourseSmart and Wakefield Researchwhich focused on more than 500 currently enrolled college students. It found that nearly all of the students (98%) that own a device have used it in school. 90% of these students say it saves them time, too. Here’s the rundown of what the study found according to a recent MarketWatch article (also check out the handy infographic below for even more details):

  • The survey revealed that technology has become a significant part of students’ everyday lives with the average using three devices daily.
  • A majority (67%) can’t go more than one hour without using some sort of digital technology, with 40% not lasting more than 10 minutes.
  • Print textbooks are losing their reputation of being indispensable. Only 5% of students say textbooks are the most important item in their bag and a majority of students say they are more likely to bring a laptop (51%) than a print textbook (39%) to class.
  • Digital devices also allow for on-the-go reference to information with 79% of college students reporting they have done a quick search on a mobile device or tablet to verify something right before a test or a quiz.
  • The study found that 68% of college students who save time using technology report saving two hours or more each day and nearly one in six students (14%) saving five hours or more.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 students (58%) report that they frequently are unable to complete required reading in time for class and of those, a majority (51%) said they would be more likely to do so if they had digital textbooks that could be accessed on a mobile device, eReader, laptop or tablet.
  • Online courses are gaining popularity with 58% of students reporting they have taken an online course, motivated primarily by being able to take the class on their own time (63%), not having to physically be in a class (48%) and being able to learn at their own pace (47%).
  • Traditional brick and mortar classes, though, are incorporating online elements, creating increasingly hybrid experiences.
  • Nearly all (96%) college students have had online components to a course: a majority of students (79%) have submitted assignments or papers online and 71% have taken online tests and quizzes.
  • Communication between faculty and students is becoming more social with nearly one in five (18%) students having received materials from their professor via Facebook.
  • Professors are also relying more on technology for delivering class announcements and assignments: 84% of students have had professors post a class syllabus online and 78% of students have received class news and updates from their professors via campus systems, such as learning management systems or student portals.

“The survey underscores the undeniable influence technology has on today’s college experience. As technology continues to evolve and digital devices become integral to the evolution of higher education, it’s encouraging to see the positive impact on learning outcomes as students utilize advanced devices and digital course materials to streamline and improve their learning environment,” said Sean Devine, CEO of CourseSmart.

EdWeek’s Top 10 EdTech Stories for 2011

The editors at Education Week have handpicked memorable articles from 2011. Below are ten of the most significant stories from our 2011 coverage of education technology.

Take another look at the reporting and analysis in these stories from our expert team of reporters. For more compilations, visit our complete collection of memorable Education Week stories from the past year.

1. Scandal Clouds News Corp.’s Move Into Education

Amid the furor over a tabloid’s phone hacking, the company’s Wireless Generation subsidiary seeks to distance itself from the fallout while facing questions about New York contracts. (August 9, 2011)

2. Schools Struggle to Balance Digital Innovation, Academic Accountability

Using educational technology in new and different ways to improve student learning is often at odds with standardized testing and other traditional measures of achievement. (June 15, 2011)

3. Virtual Ed. Advocates Respond to Wave of Criticism

As e-learning moves into the K-12 mainstream, it is attracting a growing number of critics, who say it suffers from a lack of accountability and insufficient evidence of effectiveness. (November 23, 2011)

4. Schools Tackle Legal Twists and Turns of Cyberbullying

Experts say getting students to help support school policies to prevent cyberbullying is crucial for those measures to be effective. (February 4, 2011)

5. Lectures Are Homework in Schools Following Khan Academy Lead

The “flip model” of schooling calls for students to watch lectures online for homework and use class time for discussions, problem-solving, and labs. (September 27, 2011)

6. Educators Evaluate Learning Benefits of iPad

In the wake of the iPad 2 release, teachers are still determining best practices for the different versions of the tablet computing device. (June 15, 2011)

7. Building the Digital District

The 1-to-1 laptop program in Mooresville, N.C., is producing results and helping other districts develop a strategy to link technology to achievement. (October 17, 2011)

8. Linking E-Courses to ‘Common Core’ Academic Standards

The widespread pledge by states to adopt common standards could allow virtual education to truly break down state boundaries for teachers and students, experts say.(January 7, 2011)

9. Calif. District Pushes Digital-Textbook Initiative Forward

Hundreds of teachers in the school system are now using digital devices to provide content to students through e-textbooks.(February 4, 2011)

10. Digital Book-Sharing Unlocks Print for Students

A service called Bookshare makes traditional books quickly accessible for students with certain disabilities. (November 1, 2011)