A vernacular aided edtech product free from device dependencies

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By Education Today

Posted on January 14, 2021


13 min read

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  1. When and how did Notebook come to fruition?

Notebook, the brand, came into being in 2018. We got incorporated as a company in June, 2018, and launched our first beta product on 26th January, 2019. Notebook, the idea, however, had quite a long gestation period. I have always enjoyed teaching – which is how I put myself through my college and higher education. Working as a professional with the Big Four in Consulting, I got exposed to the tremendous financial upside that lay hidden in India’s bottom billion. In 2017, I was a Director at Deloitte when I decided to take a break, and travel across India and visit Universities abroad, to figure out how to shape a product that addressed this untapped market. The tailwinds were right – data prices were low, rural penetration of smartphones was growing rapidly, and investors were seeing edtech as the most lucrative sector to back – and all of this is before the pandemic or the NEP 2020. 

Victor Hugo once famously said that nothing in the world is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. A vernacular aided edtech product free from device dependencies is that idea right now.

By the start of 2018, I had discussed my thoughts and plans with Subhayu, my cousin, who was heading Perform UK’s South Asia business. Prior to that he had led the growth of mobile content products in Africa for large telcos. We found our skills perfectly complementary and he came on board as the co-founder. Ideas were traded, school textbooks studied again, large excel sheets crunched, and a few names debated – and Notebook was born. 

  1. What is the USP you have over the competitors?

Not sure if I would call them competitors. As a sector, edtech is still in the process of discovering a sustainable winning formula. So each of us contribute to the development and success of the others in the space. Having said that – in a business, there is always a unique value proposition that one has to bring to the table. We found ours in the following:

Vernacular language inclusion: According to the Google KPMG report, India would have 536 million non-English internet users by end of 2021. Currently, all structured edtech brands serve content in English and the non-English consumer is shelling out approx. Rs. 2500 to Rs. 3000 per month into the unstructured private tuition industry. The value in that market is untapped, and that is what we are providing.

Engagement across the bell curve: if you consider the population of K12 students in India – a number of 280 million – you would see that there exists a Normal distribution of their engagement levels. There is the proverbial ‘average student’ at the centre of the bell curve. On one end you find overachievers, highly engaged, early adopters, and hungry for more and more learning. At the other end you would find the students who lack engagement, and need more handholding and guidance to inspire their natural curiosity. Current landscape of content based K12 edtech caters to the central quintile – the average student, if you will. Our pedagogy offers multiple vectors like study notes, advanced question sets, etc. that engage the more engaged students as well – while engaging the other end of the spectrum with interest builder videos, short recap sessions, etc.

Bridging the B2B-B2C conundrum: Classically, edtech has followed the industry distinction of B2B (catering to schools on a hardware licensing model) and B2C (home studies using a tab or websites). The final consumer, however, remains the same learner. Notebook has therefore delivered benefit as a device agnostic ‘after-school’ product – that teachers can use as a teaching aid in the classrooms, and students can again access on any connected device they have access to on a VOD model.

Augmented Storytelling: As an Indian, we have a natural affinity towards stories. The tremendous engagement that Bollywood delivers across socio-economic strata is a clear indicator of this affinity. When we started Notebook – we were clear that we will deliver content in a storytelling format. When making videos around those stories, we realised that while rich 3D animation delivers initial engagement, it reduces retention of the core concepts. Students often end up remembering the moving characters and bouncing objects more than the formula or concept they actually had to learn. Studies in Yale had shown that a comic book-like image sequence creates greater active engagement as the learner has to proactively imagine the sequences between the images shown. We blended this method into our content production to give rise to a system we call ‘Augmented Storytelling.’ We are currently in the process of getting a patent for this. It depends on rich hand drawn illustration and art along with soothing music to deliver greater engagement, retention and internalisation of topics.

  1. How Technology is shaping the future of Education

Despite being an edtech brand, I must admit that we see technology only as an enabler. The way we create, deliver and consume content is changing so rapidly that getting too embroiled in technology detracts from the core – which is ensuring best-in-class quality of content. 

Having said that, technology is in fact seen to have a sustained and profound impact on education. MOOCs have made it possible to access knowledge centres that were physically inaccessible to many. Today, a learner is not limited by geographical boundaries in terms of learning from the best minds. Platforms like EdX have also created self-sustaining learning communities, where doubts are ‘crowd-solved.’ Massive proliferation of smartphones and mobile internet in emerging economies have largely reduces the hegemony that existed in classical education. Pedagogy itself, is transforming. Classrooms are getting flipped, and rather than the teachers being emitters of content, are becoming facilitators of discussions around content that the students are encouraged to discover and consume outside the classrooms. We have even seen schools modifying their furniture to allow for more collaboration around connected devices. AI is changing the way assessments happen. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, delivery of education is now expected to be personalized.

Another huge impact is the democratizing effect technology has had on education. With instant access on low cost smartphones today, a child in rural India has almost the same opportunity to learn as her or his counterpart in South Mumbai.

However, all said and done, technology can aid access. It is a more efficient pipeline. The water remains, what will actually quench thirst. And that is content. Edtech brands, especially content-driven ones, would do well to prioritize the effectiveness of their content for the learners rather than get too carried away with Technology.

  1. Could you throw some light on your association with Schools and how this collaboration will help in promoting quality education among underprivileged students?

Back in 2018, when we were still devising the pedagogy and design grammar for Notebook, we kept falling back on teachers we knew – some of who we had studied under as young students ourselves. That is when we were taken aback by how little other edtech brands have engaged with teachers. Even B2B ones seem to hardly ever engage in meaningful dialogue with schools beyond Sales conversations. We decided very early on that this will not be the case with Notebook. To create any real impact on learning outcomes of young students, teachers had to consider us a part of their repertoire. 

It started with content creation. We engaged hundreds of experienced school teachers from across the country to help us develop content. The stories we build around subjects have mostly emerged from conversations with teachers who have been using these with their students over the years.

Next was content vetting. We set up focus groups of teachers across geographies and across school sizes to vet our audio-visual content and help us pre-empt questions students would typically have about a topic. This added immense value to our product.

With the pandemic, we stepped up to the plate, and told every teacher out there that we were here as partners. We did not want to sell anything or force them to give us rave reviews. Rather, we offered a helping hand, in whatever they wanted our help with. We started with Online Teachers’ Training – helping esteemed educators get a more hands-on experience with new learning platforms, without limiting it to Notebook alone. Soon, we saw the need to address non-curricular issues, and the ‘Together for Education’ webinar series was born. Week after week, we had school principals and other thought leaders discuss and debate aspects ranging from bullying to communication skills to mental health to importance of sports. Again, Notebook as a product took a backseat to Notebook, the organisation, doing what it took to help. Together for Education has had 72 sessions now and still going strong, with more than 300 teachers joining two sessions every week. So far, we have engaged over 50,000 educators on this platform.

Inspired by the success of Together for Education, we set up the ‘Zero Hour – Online International Inter-school Debate’ for students. More than 300 schools expressed their interest to be a part of this month-long event, and we could only end up accommodating 64 schools from 7 countries. For a period of a month, we became the largest public speaking event for schools, and engaged over 35,000 students, teachers and parents as they rooted for their schools. The Grand Finale on 15th August was attended by over 1200 people.

Today, we can rightly stake the claim that we have become true partners to more than 1100 schools with whom we share a relationship far deeper than a vendor-client equation. What this means is when we create content for the underprivileged, we have an enormous wealth of top-notch teaching experience to draw from. The student in rural Nagaland will learn Pythagoras theorem from her or his own school teacher, and be assisted with content from the Head of Maths Department of one of India’s oldest residential schools in Uttarakhand.

This relationship we hold with schools today, has becomes Notebook’s greatest and most irreplaceable asset.

  1. How do you think the NEP 2020 will help in leveraging modern technology in the field of education?

The NEP 2020 clearly outlines the greater impetus on technology as it says ‘extensive use of technology in teaching and learning, removing language barriers, increasing access as well as education planning and management.’ For a brand like Notebook, this provides a huge impetus as we have been focused on the use of vernacular to amplify learning outcomes. Now that there is a clear dictat for the adoption of technology, and the proof of concept that the lockdown situation has provided, all doubt about the effectiveness of technology has been removed. It is no more a question of ‘if’ and only a matter of ‘when.’ 

The NEP 2020 is a tectonic shift in the way India has always looked at education, and presents a very well-rounded vision. The implementation, of course, remains to be done in line with the vision. However, I keep complete faith in our dedicated educators that each of these envisioned improvements will be realized.

  1. What are the new trends in learning you are personally hoping for?

Personally, I am going to root for learning to become more participative, more inclusive, and more experiential. Content products like Notebook and others will reduce the time spent in content discovery – leaving more time to experiment, debate, discuss and experience. 

  1. How do you perceive the education landscape in India? What are the shortcomings you see and how could we counteract them?

Let’s first give credit where it is due. 280 million students. Spread across not only geographical diversities, but more important cultural ones. And yet, we have developed a system that works more often that it does not. We create leaders for World’s greatest companies. We lead economic thought when it comes to development. So the education landscape in India has done a phenomenal job of delivering value without having to steamroll regional cultural richness.

There are, like with everything else, areas that we can improve upon. Access has been a long-standing issue. More qualified teachers have sought jobs in more comfortable urban centres, creating a knowledge gap in many regions. Relevance has been another – where edtech brands have often not spoken the language or offered the sensibility that would impact a particular child. However, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to not only technology adoption but a general acceptance to change, which I think will fuel tremendous improvement in the years to come.

  1. As an entrepreneur, what are your thoughts on the Union Budget presented on February 1st 2021?

The Honourable FM’s announcement with regard to thrust on skilling is a very welcome initiative. The limited window of opportunity that our demographic advantage offers needs to properly utilized over the next few decades before we reach the plateau like many western countries. Hence making our youth more employable has to be taken up on priority. The current budget proposes to realign the existing scheme of the National Apprenticeship Training Scheme (NATS) for providing post-education apprenticeship, training of graduates and diploma holders in Engineering and over 3,000 crores will be provided for this. Also, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, there is an initiative to benchmark skill qualifications, assessment, and certification, accompanied by the deployment of a certified workforce. Also, in line with the existing collaborative Training Inter Training Program (TITP) between India and Japan for facilitating the transfer of Japanese industrial and vocational skills, technique, and knowledge, similar the initiative will be taken forward with many more countries.

  1. How do you intend to steer the growth of Notebook in the years to come?

At Notebook, we understand only one kind of growth – the sustainable organic kind. Yes, we will continue to drive visibility and adoption, but we will never shove ourselves down the consumer’s throat. I have always maintained that education is far too important to be oversold. We will just keep delivering value – in terms of content, in terms of engagement and in terms of thought leadership. That will always be our engine of growth. 

We already see this approach giving us great results. Not only has it helped us forge deep meaningful engagement with teachers and students but has also made us the top choice for other brands looking to create impact in the education space. Today BSNL uses Notebook content to power education through its BSNL WOW app. RailYatri chooses Notebook to add value to their services. We are also in talks with a DTH major to power their offering with our content. These offer us a great vehicle to reach more and more people without obscene Marketing spends. We will keep following this method of content-based engagement and hope that it continues to take us to greater heights.