“Whatever I do, I want it to impact the society and find practical solutions that address a pain point,” says Sridhar Rajagopalan, managing director of Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives (EI). Immediately after completing his masters in business administration from IIM-Ahmedabad, he joined Tata IBM in 1993. But even then, the question of how to improve the education system was topmost on his mind and in 1996, he co-founded Ekalavya Education Foundation (Ekalavya) with Sunil Handa, another alumnus of IIM-A.
“The school was started before education became a profitable business and making money was not the motive at that time,” he recalls. Several initiatives to impart quality education were introduced at Ekalavya. Twenty five per cent of the seats were reserved for poor children. Classes were divided not into sections, but by subjects as Math, Science and Social Studies classes. It was found to make learning exciting as the ambience in these classes were different. Teachers owned these classes and they took extra care to provide the materials useful for children to learn the specific subjects.
Finding teachers was one of the biggest problems and so a teachers’ training institute was founded to address this problem. Rajagopalan headed this division. “We started with the lower classes and kept adding a level each year. When I left six and a half years later, the school had till eighth standard and today, it is a full-fledged school,” he explains.
In 2001, after the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat, the team also got involved in rural education and realised that running a school did not solve the problem of education. The biggest problems that the nation faced were those of the learning methodologies used by schools – encouraging rote learning – apart from finding good teachers.
The question that plagued Rajagopalan was this – how could he use his experience to contribute to alleviating these problems?
A new initiative
Rajagopalan co-founded his next venture, EI, with his colleagues. It was here that he put to practice the mantra of ‘learning with understanding’. “Our aim was to provide high quality learning systems both within and outside India after extensive research,” he says. For this, it would work with schools, but provide inputs at the individual student level.
Having already established a name through Ekalavya, the initial breakthrough with schools was not as challenging as it could have been. The team sent letters to schools asking if they would like to know how well their students were learning and how they compared with other schools. And 30 schools responded favourably and this set the ball rolling. Today, EI boasts of schools such as Ryan International School in Mayur Vihar, Delhi; Amity International School in Saket, Delhi; Arya Vidya Mandir in Bandra (West), Mumbai; La Martiniere for Boys, Kolkata; and Presidency School, Bangalore, among the schools that subscribe to its products.
We have a team of 200 people, double of what we were two years ago. Most of these are bright youngsters as we realised that teaching experience is of no value here.
EI started with one assessment product, Asset and later added Mindspark in 2008 and Detailed Assessment this year. Asset is a diagnostic and benchmarking tool administered to children between classes three and ten, once a year. Two dates are announced and schools can choose one of these two. Each of the participating classes get as many question papers as the number of students and a detailed feedback is given for each student. “Normally parents pay for the question papers, and so, if in any class, even two or three students are not appearing, we do not administer the test for that class,” explains Rajagopalan.
The questions aim to encourage children to think. Once the results are out, EI also conducts a variety of activities around the results helping teachers structure their classes such that learning comes with understanding. It also administers a question a day and the teachers can base their question papers on the concept used for developing the EI question papers. “Many parents ask us how children should prepare for this, if we also give a book to study from,” says Rajagopalan. But just paying attention in class is enough to answer the questions, which do not have recall answers, but need students to apply their learning, he adds.
Mindspark was developed three years ago and is a computer-based question paper. In this, the student’s level is assessed first and questions to test the student at that level are generated by the system. “For instance, if a child is in class five, but his understanding of a particular topic matches that of class three, then the questions are administered accordingly,” says Rajagopalan. This is especially popular in government schools.
Detailed Assessment, the latest to EI’s product range, allows a teacher to test on specific topics within a subject to assess a student’s understanding level of that specific class. “This one is especially popular in Singapore,” states Rajagopalan.
The team at EI has been developed around the need to research learning patterns and develop products around that understanding. “We have a team of 200 people, double of what we were two to three years ago. Most of these are bright youngsters as we realised that teaching experience is of no value here,” he points out. Nearly 120 members of the team work on test question development and are trained through interactions with children to understand how they think and learn.
Currently, ASSET is the most popular of EI’s products, with 1,500 schools as members not only in India, but abroad as well. Mindspark has been empanelled in Texas and Michigan. Government schools are a big client in the country for ASSET and Mindspark, and the tests are either sponsored by the government or by companies with corporate social responsibility in the education field.
Mindspark is used in 55 schools currently. “If we achieve even one-tenth of Asset’s base for Mindspark, we will triple our revenues,” says Rajagopalan. The focus for the coming years is going to be in supporting schools to use these products and bringing out improvements in the existing products. “Mindspark can be very disruptive, needing two hours of school time and space for computers. Both for this and Asset, we are looking at a tablet version,” explains Rajagopalan. Asset is a paper-based test currently.
He also believes there is a huge potential across the globe and existing clientele have shown that the changes needed to adapt to the U.S. markets is very trivial. Currently, Mindspark for Math and languages are available, and EI is looking at other subjects to incorporate. There is one planned for teachers as well. “Just developing these products will keep us busy for seven to eight years,” says Rajagopalan.
“We do not have any direct competition for our products. But yes, if a school has spent on improving on infrastructure, then they may hesitate to invest in our products,” shares Rajagopalan. The primary goal for EI is to change the education scene. Rajagopalan firmly believes that if it achieves this, then it will become a large company, but that is not the primary goal. The company also wants to work with boards to improve assessment methodologies. While the Gujarat board has approached EI to revamp its system, the company is one of the institutions that have been empanelled by CBSE for accreditation.
With parents and educators concerned about the stress on marks and rote learning, EI gives schools a viable alternative to rethink their teaching methodology. By constantly reviewing and improving its products, EI hopes to keep its first mover advantage and bring about a meaningful social impact through its initiatives in education.