Building a case for Design Thinking in the Classroom

Leap Skills is a skill development organisation based out of New Delhi. We primarily work in small towns and rural India and aim to bridge the gap between employer requirements and existing skill sets of students. Our programs are self selecting in nature and 56% of our students come from low-income households, 25% come from daily wage earning families and 30% come from rural areas. Over the past 4 years, we have trained a few thousand students in partner colleges/institutions and have delivered a 99% placement result in our employment linked programs in 2016. Each year, the average increase in household incomes of our students has been anywhere between 80%-100%.

I feel the timing is apt for us to start writing about our experiences and learnings as a social enterprise for education for a couple of reasons. One, there has been a serious shift in our approach at Leap Skills in the last few months. Design thinking and usage is now central to our program development process and while this may be obvious for some, we’ve learnt this the hard way. Two, in our exercise of going back to the drawing board and studying what’s out there to ensure we don’t reinvent any existing solution, we found that there is very little conversation about the evolution of education especially in affordable formats in smaller town India. Schools, colleges, other institutions in less metropolitan geographies are catching up really slowly and students are losing out on jobs and opportunities in the bargain. While Leap has taken on this challenge head-on, we also think it’s important to share our evolution and create an effective ecosystem since the magnitude of the problem at hand is enormous.

A Leap Skills training session in Yamunanagar, Haryana

August is peak admissions season for Leap programs in undergraduate colleges and the August of 2016 did not go as planned. Both expectations and projections weren’t met and very little made sense. While we tried to make sure we keep our promise of high quality employability training and getting our students jobs, we knew we had to rethink the future of our programs at scale. Scale in education comes with its own set of challenges. It is a tussle between generating demand and building capacity to service that demand in a continuous loop. Quality control and meeting very specific student needs demand constant firefighting. And all of this is done in a sometimes hostile environment where you are challenging the system from within and managing sensitive stakeholders. We eventually discovered that for a brick and mortar classroom model to scale, we needed a large pool of skilled trainers, less dependency on colleges and their infrastructure, greater awareness of skill gaps for employment among students and a robust quality monitoring mechanism. Chances were with a combination of all these challenges and our student demographic put together, our programs would be very far from being viable. Every interaction with investors, educators, anyone else pointed us to leveraging technology. And as conventional classroom educators we were very apprehensive about experimenting with tech for our voluntary employment centric programs.

When we started considering technology as a possible solution, we had to take a conscious step back and ask ourselves a more fundamental question: what for? Before we started solving for scale we had to think about how to get there in the first place. And if tech were to address our challenges, would it also reduce costs enough to make our programs affordable for our audience? Some key insights lay in a survey which we had conducted in our interactions with close to 4000 undergraduate students in August last year. A lot of students were confused about their career choices and the next step. Despite really really low selection rates, we saw that government jobs are in great demand and very few students want to work in the private sector. Poorly informed choices perhaps stemmed from societal sources coupled with limited awareness. The few thousand bill boards of public banks or railways entrance exam coaching institutes across small towns were and are arguably misleading millions of young students into futile prep that more often than not leads them to a dead-end. On the flip side, what stood out clearly for 70% of the students was this pressing requirement of being able to confidently communicate in English.

An information session on Leap Skills programs in Ambala, Haryana

In absence of straightforward career paths, we’ve seen English speaking is the one skill that almost every student in India thinks he/she wants or needs. For students, it’s a lot more than being employable. For girls of DAV colleges across Haryana who know they will never be allowed to work in their lives and even for boys from small family-owned business backgrounds, who have never really cared about college, it’s a tool for empowerment. It makes them confident. Sometimes, it makes them cool. It makes them stand out. Incidentally, since it’s also a skill that a majority of employers ask for currently, students see a visible and direct correlation between young people who can speak well and young people who are successful. For the purpose of employment therefore, awareness around the importance of being able to communicate in English is a lesser worry. On the other hand, English is not all that employers look for and they stress equally on the need to develop horizontal, non-cognitive skills in students with limited exposure to be able to transform them into successful, effective workers. For students, it’s natural to not recognise the need for such skills as a result of both a lack of awareness as well as unclear career choices.

Technology or not, it is obvious that our design thinking process has to account for these blurred lines between what students know they want and what they don’t or can’t identify as easily. Since employment is at the centre of what we have set out to do, our students need to be employable across sectors and our programs need to be built keeping that in mind. The format of delivery and the tools used by default become the subsequent debate.