[Product Roadmap] Starting with one school in Areri village, LEAD is now working with more than 2,000 schools in 400 cities
In this week’s Product Roadmap, we feature B2B edtech startup LEAD. Its integrated learning system, including courseware, software, hardware, and teaching-learning material, is used in more than 2,000 schools in 400 cities.
In 2012, Sumeet Mehta and Smita Deorah startedto transform school education. The rise of BYJU’S, Unacademy, Vedantu, and other such startups have made edtech synonymous with supplemental edtech, working with students outside the school system completely, in India.
However, the duo felt that edtech needed to work within the school system as well.
LEAD partners with schools, and uses their proprietary integrated school system to transform schooling and deliver visibly better learning outcomes to students, in the classroom, via the teachers.
All a school needs to have is the core minimum: students, teachers, a building and some furniture.
LEAD’s integrated school system provides the rest — courseware, software, hardware, and a school kit with teaching-learning material that contains everything the school will need to run the LEAD curriculum. LEAD’s integrated system covers pre-primary to Class X.
Focus on the school system
The startup soonicorn now serves over 2,000 schools across 400 cities and reaches over eight lakh students and more than 10,000 teachers.
Sumeet believes education has to transform people into responsible citizens.
“But if you look at traditional schooling in India today, it is focused on only the capable adult part; even that is done poorly. Employability data from India regularly shows that less than half our college graduates are employable. But by the time they come to college, it is already too late. You have to fix the plumbing - the way schooling is done, if you want to build capable adults, responsible citizens and good human beings,” he says.
Smita says the team thought of engaging with the school because that is where the child spends most amount of their time - seven hours a day, six days a week.
“It is our core belief that supplemental education can only go so far. If you have to transform education, you have to transform core learning at school. And the only way to do that at scale is with the use of technology and data,” Smita says.
LEAD delivers over 1,300 learning hours per year per child. This translates to over 1.06 billion learning hours per year on the LEAD integrated school system at their current scale.
Choosing a different base of schools
“There is a false dichotomy people have that quality cannot be delivered at scale (in schools). That you need to make a choice. The magic is in the ‘AND’. You have to codify what an excellent school looks like and then use technology to scale it,” Sumeet says.
Almost all of LEAD’s partner schools are what it calls ‘Affordable Private Schools (APS)' or average fee schools in small Indian towns.
“These families are worse off than the poor in some ways,” Sumeet says.
“These are parents who are choosing to spend a significant portion of their income to send their children to a good private school, thinking that 10-12 years later they will be set for life. But by the time they realise that their child is not ready for the job market, because the education they received was broken, it is already too late. This was the area of the largest unmet need. I myself am a product of such a school. Also, for me personally, the point of coming back to India from P&G in Singapore was to do something meaningful for the country.”
LEAD’s journey started with a single school in Areri village, in Kheda district, 35 kms from Ahmedabad, Gujarat. At this school, Sumeet and Smita were both the school owners and the principals. It was here that they put into practice everything they learnt about how excellent schools worldwide worked.
But translating pedagogies that worked in expensive schools to a resource-constrained environment required creativity, systems thinking, and a first-principles approach. For instance, unlike in expensive schools, here, teacher skill was one major issue.
Working with the teachers
“We interviewed 100-plus teachers for the job of English teacher. On paper, they all had MA in English, but they would not be able to speak English,” Smita says.
The challenges with teacher quality forced the creation of a central curriculum team, which would design the curriculum and the lesson plan, with teachers tasked with implementing it. Over time, by doing over and over again what excellent teachers did worldwide, teacher skills automatically began to improve.
Of the 500,000 private schools in India, barring the top 10,000 schools, all other schools come in the APS category. These schools serve close to 140 million students. In all of the baseline assessments, the team found that the children have an English language learning gap of 1.5-2 years.
So, if they are in Class V, their English skill is at Class 3 level. “Through our trademarked ELGA programme in English, they cover up that gap in two to three years and reach grade-level skills,” says Smita, adding that covering that gap is magical because the child can now read grade-level math, science, SST independently without difficulty.
“In Math and EVS, the class average at the beginning of the year is 52-54 percent. By year end, the average has shifted to 72-73 percent. In terms of composition, only 29 percent of children are over 70 percent at the beginning of the year,” Sumeet adds.
Building a core differentiator
At LEAD, children engage in student-led conferences, student leadership movements, and get opportunities on a national platform such as LEAD Championships to learn and demonstrate their unique skills. All this boosts student confidence and provides them immense exposure.
The major shifts from traditional learning included the following:
- Replacing the purely textbook-based ‘listen and repeat’ system with multimodal learning. One that took into account the fact that children learn in different ways - by seeing, doing, or listening. Every classroom in a LEAD school now comes equipped with a TV.
- Replacing twice a year assessments that used results to label children as ‘good ‘ or ‘bad’ with frequent assessments throughout the year with ample opportunity for remediation built into the time table.
- Replacing overall subject level marks for decision making with learning outcome-level data for decision making. Today, LEAD collects over 2,400 unique data points for every child in a year. At a school level, that is 12 lakh unique data points. With so much data, and with the use of technology, LEAD is able to personalise learning for every child: something even many high fee schools struggle to do efficiently.
- Adding strong values and general awareness framework that informs curriculum development at every level.
In 2015, LEAD went from one school to six schools, and technology became essential to codify the model. The team’s first investment in technology was building the curriculum management system.
This was connected to the teacher app at the front end, so that every lesson plan that the curriculum team put together was instantly accessible to the teacher on her tab. This first product was created with the founders themselves drawing out the wireframes on a paper napkin and sharing with the outsourced tech team.
The next piece of technology to be built was the school ERP. This was again built ground up.
"We needed an academic ERP. Schools normally use Admin ERP, not academic ones, leaving out the heart of school operations, which is academics,” Sumeet says.
Early versions of the school ERP allowed principals to create their academic calendar, school timetable, and do teacher and subject allocations.
“We ran this system in our schools for all of 2016 and saw phenomenal success. We, as school owners, within a year could efficiently manage five schools remotely from Mumbai. I remember the first training when the tablets were given with the teacher app. After 40 minutes, when the engineer who built this for us walked in, there was a standing ovation!” Smita recalls.
Adding the core tech
It was only after LEAD raised its Series A in 2017 that it brought the tech team inhouse. Between 2017-2020, LEAD added 800 partner schools to its network. At this stage, they were no longer school owners, but school partners.
With the core elements of its product in place, the focus was on adding features that would make the teacher’s life simpler.
“First, attendance came on the app. Next came student-level insights that would enable the teacher to have an enriched conversation in the PTM, followed by micro-training videos for the teachers,” Smita says.
The school ERP also had to be strengthened so that principals could run it themselves. Things like assessments and classroom resources, in addition to data on teacher performance got added. On the other side, a parent app was created to help monitor their child’s progress.
LEAD’s system is very robust in that it receives and integrates user feedback on a daily basis, adapting to address customer needs better. “We are known for our speed. We do more in days and weeks than people do in months and quarters,” Sumeet says.
The COVID push
In 2019, LEAD replaced the legacy content management system with a brand new system, Delta. The new system is much more modular and allows for efficient content creation.
“When Bangalore announced school shutdown on March 11, 2020, we went into a huddle.”
Until COVID-19 hit, LEAD’s integrated school system was built to deliver learning via teachers in a physical school environment.
“In four days, we adapted the parent app into a student app, and started delivering lessons at home with LEAD School@Home. By the time the lockdown was announced, we had made a seamless transition to the online learning environment for all our schools,” Sumeet says.
The team adds they did more product development then than all the previous years combined. First was the transition to LEAD School@Home on the student app. Then, due to the complete shutdown that blocked physical transport of goods (and hence tablets), the teacher app had to be made accessible on the mobile.
Homework, quizzes and assessments went online on the student app, and the ability for teachers to do live classes alongside LEAD School@Home classes was added. A school owner app was created for remote management of schools. As a phased reopening of schools appeared likely in September 2020, LEAD developed a hybrid system as well.
“Creating the hybrid system has opened up a lot of new use cases for us, and we have got a lot of new customers. We are becoming weather-proof, lockdown-proof, disease-proof, terrorism-proof, and learning for LEAD students is now uninterrupted. Even if there is no interruption, we can now use the hybrid in multiple ways. We can conduct remedial lessons online, or get students to do some pre-reading before they come into the classroom,” Smita says.
To make learning fun and social in the home environment, LEAD also acquired Quiznext, which enables multiple levels of practice with friends in a gamified environment. Students can challenge their friends to do quizzes and have fun while learning.
Over the last year, LEAD has made several segment-level modifications as well. It now offers the curriculum in two languages — English and Hinglish (for North India). It currently serves CBSE plus eight state board curriculums, and offers an extended, tougher curriculum for schools in a higher fee bracket, who seek out a higher level of challenge.
The edtech startup is currently building the admission engine where schools list themselves on the LEAD portal, get a CRM to manage all inquiries, and get parent inquiries directly from LEAD.
“Our goal is to reach 25 million students by 2026,” Smita says.
Edited by Teja Lele