‘Break shackles of learning outcomes by using design thinking and innovation’: Vineet Nayar, Founder of Sampark Foundation

23 December, 2020 | newsx bureau

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In an exclusive conversation with NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List, Vineet Nayar spoke about his Foundation and the education system in India.

NewsX was recently joined by Vineet Nayar, Founder and Chairman of Sampark Foundation and former CEO of HCL Technologies, for an exclusive conversation as a part of its special series NewsX India A-List, wherein he spoke about his foundation and education system in India.

Talking about Sampark Foundation, Mr Nayar said, “It is a very interesting story. I was, as you are aware, CEO and Vice-Chairman of HCL Technologies and I had just written a book called ‘Employees First, Customer Second’, which sold very well, and New York Times had just done an article on the book. So, I was feeling very good, my head was about ten times larger than what you see today. I did a mistake by walking up to my mother, who was a school teacher and told her, “Look, how proud you should be of your son and aren’t you lucky that this son was born to you”. She being a school teacher, took out a copy, tore it in half and wrote one word on it, put it in a used envelope, sealed it and said, “When you are flying international, read it on the flight”. I was going to New York that night and I opened the envelope on the flight, which had one word written on it. The word was ‘Enough’. So, I landed in New York, called up my mother and asked her, “What does this word ‘enough’ mean?” She said, “If you don’t understand it, you will understand it on your way back”, and I did. There comes a time in life when you have achieved the financial security you need, you have achieved the level of recognition for your professional work, which you need. That’s the time you need to say- ‘Enough’ and quit those two goals and dedicate yourself to try and bring about a change in the country so that you can give back. Because, the reason of your success, I very strongly believe, the reason is because your family and the country as a family made you successful. You are not successful because of yourself. Therefore, one-third of your life you should dedicate in making sure that, those people who made you successful are better off than they were without you and that is how Sampark Foundation really began.”

Speaking about the goal of the foundation, Vineet Nayar said, “Since my mother was a teacher and my wife, Anukhma is also a special education teacher, we started the Sampark Foundation and we had committed a large sum of funds from our family to invest in the field of education. When we saw the field of education, we realized that there are about 15 crore children in our government system. Almost 50% of them in Grade 5, cannot read Grade 2 texts or solve basic mathematical problems. So, the learning outcome in our schooling system was very large and what was also alarming, was that 37% of the children enrolled in government schools were getting out of schools by Grade 5. Therefore, they were going to the labor pool. So, me, my wife and my mother decided that we are going to spend all our might, all our design thinking, creative thinking, all our resources to try and see if we can help the government in solving this problem to a certain extent. That is the reason we chose education. The second decision we had to take was- do we want to do it small or do we do it at a large scale. Because India is a very large country and therefore, it was very important for us to attempt a change at a very large scale. There were some very good experiments happening at small scales, so we decided to experiment at a large scale. So today, we have 1 crore children in our program in 84,000 schools in 6 states. The learning outcome improvement is about 34% year on year. All this is possible because we used design thinking and innovation to try and break the shackles of learning outcomes”.

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When asked about the biggest challenges or problems in the Indian education system and how Sampark Foundation is working towards overcoming these problems, Mr Nayar said, “I think the biggest problem in education has to do with poor learning outcome, the fact that especially in rural areas, the resources, the quality of teaching and teachers is poor and therefore, neither the teacher is interested nor the child is interested. Therefore, the learning outcome continues to go down. The amount of resources which are required to bring about a change is very, very large. In addition to this problem, we suddenly, because of Covid had a massive setback. When the children are sitting at home, then when they get detached from education even for one year, they lose interest in education. Once they lose interest in education then even those children who were self-driven would not be able to come back. So, Sampark Foundation used design thinking extensively, to find out how we can make education exciting. We were inspired by Bollywood and especially with Vidya Balan’s voice in Munnabhai M.B.B.S., when she says, ‘Good morning Mumbai’. So we said, how can we bring the song and dance of Bollywood and equivalent voice of Vidya Balan into the classroom, using a rechargeable audio device and teach Math and English with song, dance, fun and suddenly ignite the classroom and make learning exciting or fun based. Can we surround that innovation with other teaching and learning innovation? Therefore, suddenly going to school is all about fun. So, we did that, we rolled it out to 1 crore children and it was very successful and then came Covid. Now, when Covid came it became very important for us to do two things. First, to be in touch with the teachers to make sure that the teacher is interested in education. So, we launched an app called ‘Sampark Smartshala’, where there are almost 20 lakh views on a monthly basis. Second, we encouraged the teachers to use loudspeakers in the villages, in marriage halls, mandirs, mosques and use ‘Sampark Tv’ and the audio device to keep on teaching the children, while they are sitting at home so that the interest in learning continues. So, our focus in Sampark Foundation is to drive cutting edge design thinking, to try and solve the unsolvable problem in a very frugal way. All interaction in Sampark Foundation, costs less than 1$ per child.”

Mr. Nayar also talked about the National Education Policy (NEP), and how it can help transform education for better in India. He said, “I think there are three positives of the NEP, there are many more of them but three important positives for me which are very critical- Firstly, they have emphasized that we need to move away from rote learning to applied learning, which the focus of Sampark Foundation. That is the reason we use teaching-learning materials, that is the reason we use audio device with ‘Sampark Tv’, to try and teach in a different way to the students and our science program is all about applied learning. Therefore, the teachers and the students are applying their learning because rote learning is not going to go anywhere. So that’s the first aspect which I like. The second aspect, I think very few people realize that teaching in a rural school is very difficult because you have these multigrade classrooms. On one side you have a child that cannot count till 99 and on the other side a child who needs to learn division. Now, how you handle a class which needs multiple learnings simultaneously, is very critical. The first step to do that is an assessment. The teacher having the visibility to who knows what and that is the second thing which NEP focuses on, to digitalize learning so that the teacher has availability and can understand on a real-time basis, who knows what. That’s the second aspect which is very critical. The third aspect which is interesting, is the leveraging technology and how can you leverage technology to reach more and more people. The only caveat I have is that people make a mistake by saying technology is computing or internet. I would say that an audio device is also technology. So, in India, if we have to reach all those 15 crore children, the we have to be frugal in our approach. Therefore, we have to reapply our minds in terms of what is technology. So, I believe that NEP is a step in the right direction and we are completely aligned with it”.

Furthermore, sharing his thoughts on working with the Haryana government on assessment tools and the ‘Bal Bethak’ initiative, Mr. Nayar said, “I think along with assessment we wanted to create a digital classroom for the teacher and the student to interact. In private schools there is a classroom where the interaction takes place but in the rural community, that is not there. So we have created a Facebook kind of application called ‘Bal Bethak’ which is an interface between the teacher and the student. So not only is the assessment done in a ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ gamified style, but also the teacher sitting at home is able to interact with the children even if 30,40% have access to a mobile phone in the evenings, that’s fine. That is better than zero. That is what we are attempting to do in Haryana. It is a state-wide rollout of assessment in Haryana, to try and continue to make learning happen while children are at home”.

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