Ed-tech will transform more than just schools and workplaces

Looking for ed-tech innovation in unusual places – for example, in how my mother studies philosophy and practices Jainism.

It's a cool August afternoon on a quiet Sunday. The lockdown has put the whole town to sleep, but Mom is by the window, toggling between three books and the YouTube sermon she is diligently taking notes from.

My mother studies Jain philosophy. She pores over the Agamas, dense texts scripted from oral history dated ~2,500 years ago, trying to understand the science of spiritual life passed down through generations. Every few months, all of us at home know that she's going to be in her room for hours, studying for a series of increasingly difficult exams, teaching others over long phone calls, and encouraging those at the fence to sign up. "Exam ke bahaane, padhaai ho jaati hai" – The exams are a good pretense to study these texts, she jokes in persuasion.

These exams allow the community to support individuals in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. Much like Torah, Quran and Bible study groups around the world. Organized as a snowflake structure, our saints are at the centre, regional scholars in the next layer, and local groups of members at the outermost edge. A parallel education system, if you will.

Pre-2020, studying these texts meant ordering books way in advance, congregating in the bhavan with your study group, paying a registration fee and filling out forms so you could receive the question papers and a certificate later on. For the stay-at-home population of moms who were most interested in taking these exams, such cumbersome formalities understandably pushed away many from participating. It was, as they like to say, “a big headache”.

However, the consequences of the pandemic have forced the traditional institution and its members to adapt these processes. With intentional design and simple technology, these formalities have faded into the background to bring the learning to the forefront and raise enrolment numbers spectacularly. Let’s unpack how they did that.

The learning experience

Mom logs into an app and verifies her identity with 3 clicks.

She receives free PDFs of books, attends YouTube streams of sermons and joins charcha (discussion) groups on WhatsApp, each of whom has "10-15 enthusiastic people who won't sit still until they have found and shared the answer".

There are weekly quizzes at first, and then more daily quizzes in the run-up to the final exam. Mom finds that the multiple-choice questions are designed to help you notice nuance, improve precision and understand abstractions. They help you to learn.

The interface of the quizzes is simple and neat, and a message before submitting your answers encourages you to go back and re-answer questions you may have skipped (often because your fingers may have been flying too fast).

The final open-book (open-PDF?) exam is a 90-minute deep dive into the main concepts. While enlightenment is not guaranteed 😇, this period of deep study is rewarding in itself. Feedback is instant: there are no invigilation officials, red correction pens, or sealed envelopes involved.

All of this is in Hindi. My English-conversant mom is as comfortable with this as the older uncle from a small town who only speaks Hindi and uses little technology beyond WhatsApp. In a country where 12 languages have over 30 million speakers, this is a big deal. (Source: India 2011 Census)

The language in which people learn here = the language in which they take their exam = the language of their app.

This may seem obvious when the first language is the lingua franca of education and work. But it is a luxury for multilingual populations who are constantly translanguaging, and often unsuccessfully from the margins.

The impact of this new design is impressive. Enrolment for these exams has gone up 40% from last year. In the time I took to write this article, I overheard mom recruiting three more people – "just sign up, see how easy it is this year to give the exam!"

And sure, even with all these features, engaging in such deep study calls for a minimum threshold of self-directed learning and intrinsic motivation. But once people are past that minimum, this scaffolding enables those who want the basics, as well as those who want to go really deep, alike.

Mapping the "stack" to its purpose

I doubt that someone sitting in Ladnun, Rajasthan did comprehensive backwards design planning for this course, but looks pretty good right?

There are more strides underway to make Jain knowledge & philosophy more accessible: for example, my mother-in-law (to be) is translating Level 3 of Jain Vidya (Jain Knowledge) into English! For a way of life that has come to be too abstract and ascetic for my millennial generation, the on-going democratization of not only knowledge but also the access to it may just lead to a renaissance.

Why does this matter?

  • Learning hard things is, well, hard. Anyone who has figured out how to craft processes and maintain quality to enable such learning at scale deserves respect.

  • This story shows how integral community is to online learning. If people feel supported, connected and interdependent, they will keep learning and keep teaching. (I find this an insanely inspiring problem to solve, and am partnering with new course creators to build community as they build their courses. Reach out if this sounds like you!)

  • Good tech solves pain points and then gracefully fades into the background, pushing learning to the forefront. Everyone and their mom and pop are building ed-tech apps and online courses. Most are glitchy, poor with pedagogy and resource-intensive to build and maintain. The reviews of this app show us that good enough technology has enabled growth, but it was not the secret sauce itself. A purpose for learning, intentional scaffolding throughout the experience, and community organizing have really driven adoption.

The enduring success of ed-tech will come from the ed, not the tech.

I’ll conclude with three trends that this case makes me confident about:

  1. Even the most traditional institutions can adapt to a distributed, digital and radically accessible existence

  2. We should be looking at ed-tech innovations outside of the usual places (and outside the usual languages!). We ignore them at our peril, blindsiding us to the far-reaching implications on culture and society this is going to have.

  3. The explosion of continuous informal learning will become a foundational social context for the non-stereotypical student. Outside of family, work and immediate friend circles, it will be increasingly common for adults to build relationships and form networks through courses, workshops or programs.

Up next: I'll write about how my dance teacher Karuna Sagari has taken Bharatanatyam - a 2000-year old classical art - online through blended learning. Subscribe to my Substack newsletter to receive this directly in your inbox!

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