In a recent episode of Ei Dialogues, Pranav Kothari spoke to Vineet Nayar, Founder Chairman and Chairman of the Sampark Foundation. Inspired by the potential of frugal innovation in creating exponential change, Sampark aims to revolutionise classroom transactions in India. Through effective partnerships with governments, they have reached one crore children in eighty-four thousand schools across six Indian states.

In this conversation, Pranav and Vineet spoke about the need to partner with governments to achieve systemic change, the importance of creating EdTech that empowers and not replaces teachers, and what entrepreneurs in EdTech should prioritise to achieve success.

You can listen to the entire conversation on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. You can also watch edited excerpts from the episode in the video below:

Partnering with Governments for Sustainability and Scale:

The Sampark Foundation was launched with an in-built expiry date of 2025, Vineet explained. As such, its goal was to create catalytic change that actors within the education system could take ownership of and carry forward.

Given its target demographic (students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds), Sampark saw governments and government schools as the right channel for this goal. To secure government support, Vineet claimed it was necessary to create solutions that had political purchase as well. This led Sampark to focus on foundational literacy and numeracy, building fluency in English, and similar areas that would be supported by key stakeholders in government.

Their initiatives were low-touch by design to ensure sustainable and scalable uptake. The organisation first created a need for change in classrooms by identifying weaknesses in student learning and sharing this knowledge with teachers. Following this, they provided teachers with numerous solutions ranging from an audio box, board games, multimedia workbooks, a mobile app, and more. They also built teacher capacity through training programmes to ensure their interventions were implemented with high fidelity.

Creating Technology for Teachers

The Sampark Foundation has placed teachers at the centre of all its interventions. As Vineet put it, “[T]he value for the child gets created in the interface with the teacher,” so the role of Sampark became “not to bypass the teacher…but to enthuse, enable, and encourage the teacher.”

Such an approach, he believes, is necessary especially for students in lower classes who are not equipped to undertake self-directed learning. This philosophy of EdTech of also takes into account the inherently social nature of education, where socialisation is as important a part of the process as learning. It is often lacking in a number of solutions available today which put children in siloes disconnected from their peers, parents, and educators. The purpose of good EdTech, Vineet maintained, should be to empower, not replace, teachers. True to this word, Sampark claims that, in addition to improving student learning, their interventions have also reduced teacher workload.

The Importance of Frugal Innovation

In keeping with its mission to create scalable, sustainable, and low-touch interventions, Sampark has optimised for frugality when designing its programmes. They aim, therefore, to create solutions that cost less than $1 per child in totality.

When designing educational solutions in India, Vineet highlighted that it was crucial to account for the constraints of rural schools, since they serve a significant portion of students and often those with the least access to high-quality educational material. He stated, “we have to get into the shoes of a teacher and understand what a rural school is… There is no roof, there is no fan, their windows are closed, and it is a multi-grade classroom. When there is work in the field, [children] don’t come, so there is a very high degree of absenteeism. So, once we understand the environment and [design] our solutions based on that environment, by all means, use technology. Otherwise, it’s a complete failure.”

He supported this argument with a practical example from Sampark’s work. The organisation was designing EdTech for schools in rural India but had to contend with the lack of regular electricity. Therefore, they designed a battery-powered audio box that taught children English through stories and similar activities.

This principle also formed the core of Vineet’s advice to young entrepreneurs. Especially in developing nations, the desire to create change at scale will always be limited by scarce resources available to do so.  It is only when accounting for constraints that good intentions will translate into significant impact.