250 million students in 250 million classrooms: The future of education in India

In April 1961, Richard Buckminster Fuller, one of the great renaissance figures of the twentieth century, addressed a gathering of pedagogues in a small university town in the US Midwest. Titled‘Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies’, this lecture remains one of the seminal expositions on the future of education. In a piece dense with insight, there is one passage that is especially prophetic:

“Real education, however, will be something to which individuals will discipline themselves spontaneously under the stimulus of their own ticker tapes — their individually unique chromosomes. All people have their own chromosomal patterns. No two persons have the same appetite at the same time. There is no reason why they should. There is no reason why everyone should be interested in the geography of Venezuela on the same day and hour unless there is some “news” event there, such as a revolution. However, most of us are going to be interested in the geography of Venezuela at some time — our own time — but not all on the same day. Simultaneous curricula are obsolete. We must make all the information immediately available over the two way TVs ready for the different individual human chromosomal ticker-tapes to call for it”

Most of us remember Fuller as the person behind the geodesic dome for which he is immortalised in the fullerene carbon molecule. It is less known that he was also one of the most insightful and forward thinkers on education ever.

Fifty years following his landmark lecture we are now at the cusp of realising Fuller’s dream of “chromosomal” personalised education.

This is a vision of how interventions like Xamcheck, a company we funded in 2014 and currently India’s fastest growing personalised learning platform for schools, can make chromosomal learning possible for the hundreds of millions of students in India.

Setting the context

With 250 million children attending school, India has the largest number of enrollments in the world (China has less than 200 million). Even more striking is the role of the private sector, which operates 25% of the 1.5 million schools in India but accounts for over 40% of the total school enrollments; a share that will only increase given the public’s predilection for private sector providers, coupled with the government’s push towards becoming a payer for services as opposed to a provider through legislations such as the Right to Education Act.

All is not well though.

Disconnected Gears

The current state of education in India, be it in private sector or government schools, can be best described as an ecosystem of disconnected ‘learning gears’ as seen in the graphic below:

Disconnected gears of learning in India
  • Textbook publishing is far removed from the realities of the classroom and not customized to make content more timely and relevant.
  • Pedagogy and teacher improvement initiatives are neither tailored to the teaching capacity of instructors (most teachers are under-qualified) nor to the learning capabilities of students.
  • Most smart-class technologies have worked more as a marketing tool for enrollments than for improving learning outcomes.
  • Tutoring and after school initiatives, once considered supplementary education, have now almost become a parallel school system as most schools are not able to customize instruction to ensure that very few students are left behind.

Combined, these lead to a frustrating experience and poor learning outcomes for the student; in addition, there is economic wastage due to duplication of pedagogy (after-school tutoring) and investments in technology that don’t deliver (many smart-class products).

Central to this disconnect is the lack of a fundamental understanding of how each student learns and how one can use this knowledge to interlock the ‘gears’ of the system.

Can we find a way to solve this?

Putting it together

Enter school exams. Assessments have always been central to formal education but there has been scant innovation in using them to objectively understand student learning gaps and capabilities of instructors.

Can we re-invent school exams not just to ‘glue’ together pedagogy, infrastructure and content delivery at the school level but also create the foundational data-set for personalised learning?

In 2013, Naveen Mandava and Varun Kumar started Xamcheck with this very vision. They realised that while a tech platform can achieve exponential scale in an all-digital learning environment, the real deal is in building a viable and fast-scaling business model that works well both in the digital world and in the offline pen-paper-textbook system. The reality in India is that ‘going off-line’ is currently the only way of reaching meaningful scale in the world’s largest school ecosystem given that the vast majority of schools will certainly not be able to go completely digital for at least the next 10 years.

Fast forward three years and Xamcheck’s IMAX platform is one of the fastest growing deep-engagement personalised education interventions in the world, having delivered over 1.5 million tests and 300,000 customised textbooks and workbooks to 100,000 students. Importantly, the program has been able to prove that it works at scale in schools that have monthly school fees of as low as $20 and in remote towns with populations of less than 50,000.

So what is the IMAX platform? IMAX starts off by taking control of all of the internal assessments of private K-12 schools — from designing, delivering and evaluating all of the pen-paper tests to developing personalised report cards that provide students granular feedback on their learning gaps. It then uses this proprietary student data to provide students with customised textbooks/workbooks and digital learning tools that help them navigate through specific learning gaps in ways that are most suited to their unique aptitudes and interests.

Core to IMAX is the proprietary assessment engine that marries Bloom’s Taxonomy and data science techniques to convert routine school exams into a veritable vault of data on the students’s interests and capabilities, called the “Learning Genome”. Below is great video that explains both the concept of the Learning Genome and the IMAX platform in detail:

The true power of the Learning Genome however lies is helping mesh together the disconnected gears of learning in a school (see graphic below). The Learning Genome in itself does not have the means of effecting this convergence; Xamcheck’s full stack approach does. Full stack entails holistic control of all of the elements (content, assessments, technology and pedagogy) of the learning value chain. We believe it is the only way to ensure a threshold quality of education delivery to reduce the inequity in learning outcomes that currently exist because of the wide variance in financial standing and academic capabilities of schools. The IMAX platform, therefore, is not just about intelligent report cards but is deeply invested in making sure that the information in the Learning Genome is used to deliver meaningful teacher improvement tools and also power after-school learning experiences.

Xamcheck model of linking the gears

But, how does one achieve rapid scale with the seemingly contradictory notion of deep engagement?

Two principles have helped Xamcheck in this regard:

  • Humans are generally adverse to dramatic behavioural change. Therefore, if you want to get to a lot of schools and still significantly push the bar on innovation, you need to find a way create efficiencies in the existing school system without subverting it. Xamcheck’s team has spent considerable time to understand the mindset of school entrepreneurs and the apprehension of teachers towards pedagogy changes in order to design programs that manage these concerns and turn pedagogues into champions of the platform rather than ‘friction elements’. This has helped significantly in accelerating scale. Naveen has a great post on this and the broader Xamcheck manifesto here.
  • Rapid application of the design->pilot->scale->automate cycle can reduce operational complexity dramatically. Xamcheck has been able to execute on this repeatedly across several core functions, be it in moving to a distributor led sales model from direct sales force or in transitioning from in-house content development to a curated content marketplace. Most exciting for me is how they have completely disrupted the economics of the textbook printing industry through outsourced last-mile printing shops. Xamcheck has proven in no uncertain terms that economies of scale of big publishing can be broken and that it is possible to print and deliver a million uniquely personalised text books of high quality at a cost lower than large scale print runs through decentralised printing. This is an important trend of how technology will make personalisation (and what is now the ‘long tail’) mainstream going forward with advances in technologies such as 3D printing disrupting the economies of scale of large scale manufacturing.

“Freeing the scholar to return to her studies”

The IMAX platform is currently on track to serve close to 500,000 students by mid-2016 and aims to impact upwards of 10 million school learners over the next five years. While we are not yet at a point in time where we can realise Fuller’s idea of making simultaneous curricula obsolete, predictive personalised learning (think of it as Google Now of learning) will indeed be a reality for almost every school going child in India in the next 10 years, thanks to exponential increases in the affordability of personal digital devices and rapid advances in data science.

Imagine 250 million students each in a ‘classroom of one’, learning all the time, everywhere and in ways tailored to their unique Learning Genome. Now, that would make Bucky smile!

In April 1961, Richard Buckminster Fuller, one of the great renaissance figures of the twentieth century, addressed a gathering of pedagogues in a small university town in the US Midwest. Titled ‘Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies’, this lecture remains one of the seminal expositions on the future of education. In a piece dense with insight, there is one passage that is especially prophetic:

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