Horace Mann, the American educator had said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equaliser of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
Education has commonly served as a platform for catapulting youth from underprivileged socio-economic sections to the big leagues. 24-year-old Lavin Mirchandani and 25-year-old Lehar Tawde were thinking along the same lines when they founded Mumbai-based edutech venture ConnectEd Technologies in early 2015 to make quality education and vocational training accessible to rural youth.
Although Lavin and Lehar had been working with leading organisations, both felt the desire to move to a field that had the potential to make a social impact. Lehar says,
Now everyone knows our rural education system isn’t in the best shape, but not many know what is actually wrong with it. Lavin and I are both products of the urban education system, and hence we spent over six months just understanding India’s rural education system —the problems plaguing it, and how technology could step in to solve it. After we felt reasonably sure of our understanding of the system itself, we quit our jobs and took the road less travelled, into rural Maharashtra.
The Palghar project
As the duo had learnt that the authorities at the newly-formed Palghar district were encouraging of developmental projects, they chose it for the launch of their smart classroom system. The moderately-sized district is also easily accessible from Mumbai, which was another factor for the ConnectEd team choosing it.
Since this was their first time interacting with the authorities and people in a rural area, they were not sure if the response would be positive. To their pleasant surprise, every stakeholder they interacted with supported them tremendously, allowing them to conduct primary research in this region encompassing 570 schools.
After their primary research provided them with the validation they were seeking, Lavin and Lehar were joined by another friend from college, 24-year-old Haren Paul Rao. Among the three of them, ConnectEd Technologies was formed and they immediately started building a product that would support teachers and improve academic performance in some of Palghar’s most densely packed classrooms.
In the academic year 2016–2017, ConnectEd’s smart classroom systems were introduced in Palghar with the support of the Maharashtra government’s education ministry. Now, after the launch of ConnectEd’s model project in Palghar, the team is working to take its solutions to rural areas across Maharashtra by collaborating with various key stakeholders under the ‘ekShiksha’ campaign.
By using the smart classroom system in many grossly understaffed government-aided, zilla parishad, and tribal welfare schools, ConnectEd takes some of the load off the faculty there. The highly interactive system, using the regional language for effective communication, makes school extremely attractive to students and encourages them to be more attentive. Power outages pose no hindrance due to the use of solar energy.
A major player in this space is Educomp Foundation, which has created Universal Academy Schools to target first-generation learners in remote areas and villages. Another edutech platform is Mobiliya Edvelop, providing value-based digital education that goes beyond making course content available online.
Lavin looks after product development and operations, while Lehar handles strategic relations. Haren takes care of corporate relations. ConnectEd also has a content development team comprising young educators, scriptwriters, animators, translators, voice-over artists, and editors, some of whom work full-time from their office in Goregaon while the rest work on a part-time or freelance basis.
Various trusts and NGOs have been supporting the ekShiksha campaign by helping raise funds for the deployment of ConnectEd’s smart classroom system across schools that lie in their region of interest. Corporate donors, particularly those mandated to do CSR by the updated Companies Act 2013, are also donating to the initiative directly and/or by executing fundraising campaigns within the organisation itself. The team also hopes to receive more support from governmental departments to help make a difference to other districts and states. With girl-child focused schemes like ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ and the Digital India campaign that works toward improved digital connectivity across the country already in place, ConnectEd should find a match with governmental goals.
With the implementation of such better education systems in the rural areas, hopefully there will be greater development and progress in a much more uniform manner across the country.