What happens when a creative and enterprising rural school teacher stumbles upon Alexa? He could have just used it like the rest of us do, but here’s what he did instead.
Rarely does one get to chronicle ‘innovation’ stories from ground zero - where you smell the heat and the dust, walk through kachcha roads dotted with sleepy village homes, sweat it out and get your feet dirty, literally. After all, the best of innovation often tends to take place in sanitised research labs and glass offices of global corporations.
And thus, it is also the biggest challenge most innovators face over time: How do you make innovation reach the grassroots and impact the lowest common denominator? More so in a country like India that resides in its villages, and where cultural nuances change every 100 km and dialects, every 50.
A tech behemoth like Amazon probably faced these questions at some point during its five-year run in India. In the context of Alexa, its AI-powered voice assistant which launched a little over a year back, the questions may have been more pressing. Because voice - possibly the hottest commodity in tech right now - has the potential to transcend socio-cultural barriers, bridge the literacy gap, and consequently, improve living standards.
Much to the Seattle-based company’s delight, people on ground zero have emerged as change-makers themselves with a little help from Amazon devices. Here’s one such story that is nothing but a triumph of human imagination.
In the hot, dry, and dusty village of Warud in Maharashtra’s Amravati district, a 31-year-old schoolteacher is using Alexa to impart lessons to kids of farmers and labourers employed in the vicinity.
Amol Bhuyar, an assistant teacher at a Zila Parishad school that dates back to 1955, stumbled upon Alexa last year while web browsing. It naturally piqued his interest, and he believed that Alexa could be a great teacher for his restless young students.
Internet-based learning is still a privilege of the select few, but Amol wanted his school kids to get a taste of it. He tells YourStory,
“Main Alexa ke maadhyam se unka technology se parichay karana chahta tha (I wanted to introduce them to technology via Alexa).”
Alexa goes to a village school
Amol took the idea to school principal Sushma Kapase who was enthused about the prospect of Alexa becoming a part of the kids’ curriculum. But questions remained: How could Alexa be integrated in the daily lives of under-10-year-olds? More importantly, as Amol puts it, “Iska kharcha kaun uthayega (who will bear the expense)?”
Without further ado, Amol and Sushma pooled in Rs 5,000 each and bought an Amazon Echo device. The next step was to set it up in the school’s tiny premises. Amol wanted to make Alexa more appealing to the kids. He designed a robot that resembled a woman, clothed her in smart casuals that he ordered on the internet, and planted the Echo device inside. Finally, Alexa looked like an actual human being with a real voice, one who spoke to the kids.
Amol admits that the idea of an Alexa Robot was inspired by Sophia, the world’s first AI robot to be granted citizenship (by Saudi Arabia) in 2017. “The kids want to learn something new every day and the Alexa robot just increased their curiosity,” says Amol. “Their learning process has become more fun and interactive than before, and now they are learning on their own,” he adds.
Alexa Robot entered the municipal school on March 16, 2018. Amol remembers the day with much fondness. “I took a month-and-a-half to complete the entire setup. When we unveiled it here, the response was great. Bahut zyada bheed ho gayi thi uss din (we had such a crowd that day). The Education Secretary had also come and was curious to ask questions to Alexa,” he says.
What the kids ask Alexa
Because the school’s medium of education is Marathi, Alexa has opened up an all-new world of English words for the students. Spellings are one thing they ask her the most. Other than that, she answers questions on general knowledge, recites math tables, shares science trivia, and English rhymes, and of course, plays popular film songs, everything from Zingaat to Swag Se Swagat.
“There was a language barrier initially because these kids know only Marathi. So, we prepared a format in which they could ask questions. They started with simple ones like ‘Alexa, what is the capital of Maharashtra?’ and ‘Alexa, who is the Prime Minister of India?’ They have now gone on to ask questions of their own. Their curiosity has increased aur ab yeh naye-naye prashn ghar se banake laate hai. (now they bring new types of questions for her to answer).”
On any given day, the smartest student in class asks Alexa 12-15 questions and waits for her to respond. If she doesn’t, the question is repeated. “Our students are very patient and want answers to all their questions. Until they get the answers, they keep asking,” Amol notes.
Once they asked Alexa about her father, much to the amusement of the teachers. When Alexa said her “father is Amazon” more amusement followed. Principal Kapase says,
“Alexa has increased the kids’ knowledge level. It has familiarised them with technology. Their involvement (in school work) has also gone up.”
The school devotes an hour (4-5 pm) of learning through Alexa every day. Students are encouraged to be on their own around her. Singing, dancing, and learning exist in harmony. For a fleeting moment, this obscure little school in a remote village in Maharashtra seems like the most joyous place on earth.
But then, ground zero challenges export us back to reality.
What more needs to be done
Like most Indian villages, Warud is plagued with poor internet connectivity. Amol sees it as his “biggest challenge”. Finding a stable data connection is an enormous struggle. There is no broadband, and mobile data is negligible too.
“Vodafone and Airtel don’t work here. Only Jio works somewhat, but someone has to stand in one place and hold the mobile, otherwise the connection keeps getting dropped.” He laments that “despite the interest shown by members of the municipality, we have not received any support from them”.
The teachers use their own mobiles as hotspots to connect to Alexa. In case a phone is stolen - something that occurred recently - they resort to using a family member’s phone. “This has been the biggest problem, and we can’t solve it on our own,” says Principal Kapase.
Even as the school hopes for some assistance from the local government, it could end up receiving support (in the form of free internet) from Alexa-parent Amazon, which makes no bones about the benefits of this indigenous innovation.
In a separate conversation with YourStory, Dilip RS, Country Manager - Alexa Skills, Amazon India, said,
“These are things we [Amazon] cannot imagine or coach them in. People themselves have realised the opportunity, and Alexa has opened up their ideas and imaginations.”
Meanwhile, Amol is confident that if the connectivity issue is fixed, Alexa Robot can be replicated in many village schools, and students across age groups can gain from internet-led learning. “Also, if YouTube’s educational content can be brought to Alexa, that would be great for the kids,” he says.
Amazon, are you listening?
(Photos by Sohini Mitter)