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Startups turn to AI improve teaching quality at government-run schools

The quality of teaching, especially English-language education in government schools across the country, has always been a pain point.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Oct 04, 2019, 12.10 PM IST
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The key is in sustaining these initiatives over a period of time, which is where long-term partnerships will play an important role.
In a classroom in rural Maharashtra, students stare at a screen as it reads out their English textbook. The teacher occasionally clicks on a word for its Marathi translation — the primary language of most students at the school — or shows them a picture to make them understand a word.

This method of learning has started to significantly improve the quality of English education in Maharashtra’s government schools.

Sanjay Gupta, Chief Executive Officer of EnglishHelper, which created the technology platform, the company developed it after researching the most efficient way to learn a new language.

“The challenge is to get exposure to language as a student. This is a multisensory, repetition-based platform which won’t confuse the student,” he says.

Meanwhile, in Hyderabad, speech automation firm Voxta has developed an app that helps users improve spoken English. Using artificial intelligence and natural language processing, the app gives users instant feedback and corrects how they speak.

Kavita Reddi, co-founder, Voxta says the company has partnered with a number of vocational institutes to help students speak English better, and is also working with a few low-income schools.

“There is a shortage of good teachers and there is a huge need for something like this, because speaking in English is becoming critical for students to be able to get jobs,” she says.

Over three lakh people have already used the app, Reddi says. The quality of teaching, especially English-language education in government schools across the country, has always been a pain point.

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Although attempts have been made to come up with innovative solutions — like training teachers in a certain manner or providing tools to aid the process — the results have been less than satisfactory.

India has over a million public schools with over 260 million students enrolled in these, but the learning outcomes leave a lot to be desired. Annual Status of Education Report surveys indicate only 15% of Grade 5-6 students can both read and comprehend simple English sentences.

Now, companies such as EnglishHelper and Voxta, are turning to technology to bridge the gap.

“We did a third-party evaluation and found a 20-40% improvement over people who didn’t use this program. At full deployment, it is expected to benefit more than 15 million students and 200,000 teachers,” Gupta says.

After running a few pilot projects over the last few years, EnglishHelper signed an agreement with the state government in July to roll out the platform across 65,000 schools in the state. Of this, over 10,000 schools have already been covered and over 13,000 teachers have been trained on how to use the software.

“We would like to cover 100,000 schools by March 2020, which is not even 10% of the government schools in India,” Gupta says. Mumbai-headquartered paper stationery manufacturer Sundaram Groups has a similar venture, E-Class, which primarily works with schools in Maharashtra to digitise the teaching process. It provides content in Marathi and English for the Class 1-10 syllabus, and can be plugged on to a TV or projector. These solutions are easy to scale up using technology, but the challenges of working within the government system means these firms do not gain the kind of traction they need.

This is where the government is stepping in, with the central and several state governments launching programs aimed at empowering teachers.

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A few years ago, the Ministry for Human Resource Development and the National Council for Teacher Education launched Diksha, a digital infrastructure platform which helps teachers in learning and training themselves. It also helps them create training content, in-class resources and assessment aids along with connecting to other teachers across the country.

In 2016, the Delhi Government launched an online capacity building programme for teachers, where the training on content is mapped as per the annual academic calendar of schools. Teachers can access this through an app, which also provides analytics on the training. As they can do it on their own, they do not have to be pulled out of school for it. Various states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, have started setting up virtual classrooms which will improve the quality of education available to students in remote areas in the state. This year’s Union Budget allocated around Rs 57,000 crore for the school sector, while the Gujarat state budget has earmarked Rs 30,000 crore towards educational initiatives.

Similarly, Tamil Nadu has a Teachers’ Platform for training as well as providing digital resources like textbooks and other online content. Last year, the Sikshana Foundation collaborated with Dell and the Karnataka government to launch a technology in education program in 57 model schools.

In Punjab, improving the level of English in schools is one of the focus areas, with initiatives like a ‘Library Langar’ and English Labs, along with updating the curriculum and coming up with newer teaching methods.

EnglishHelper, which has partnered with USAID, integrated its technology with the existing curriculum, making it easier for schools to adopt. “This way, the teacher remains in charge of teaching the class while the technology makes it more effective,” Gupta says.

However, making this work within the government apparatus is a challenge for most firms, and one reason why Voxta is focusing more on higher education institutes and private users. “We are looking to find a partner to work with for the school program, which will be aimed at slightly older kids,” Reddi says. The company is currently working with vocational institutes like the Telangana State Engineering Colleges where students have reported a 70% improvement in their English speaking abilities, within a period of two weeks.

However, it’s still early days in the technology adoption cycle and a lot more needs to be done.

The key is in sustaining these initiatives over a period of time, which is where long-term partnerships will play an important role. For the state governments, increased budgets seem to be spurring more investments in modern classrooms and learning tools, but whether this can impact learning outcomes remains to be seen.

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