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Rohini Nilekani’s Opening Comments at eSpire 2020

Education | Aug 8, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s opening address at eSpire 2020, a virtual conference organised by EduMentum on August 7th and 8th. The conference marked the successful completion of their incubation program for 23 organisations across 15 states since 2017. In the past few months, they have witnessed the strength and commitment of their cohort organisations to ensure the continuity of education for children across the country.

We are living through unbelievable times, which could not have been imagined in December last year. This is the first time in at least 100 years that we have reached a point where children being together in public spaces, schools, and classrooms, is dangerous for them. Since we cannot afford to let children’s learning slip, we have all had to think very differently about education, in terms of the present condition as well as how we go forward. This is a great opportunity for education entrepreneurs to innovate, experiment, and learn.

Reaching Every Last Child

My experience in education is going on 20 years now. I started out at Pratham, one of the largest education nonprofits in the world. In 1999 I was invited to join the Karnataka wing of Pratham, which we called Akshara Foundation. In 2004, I co-founded Pratham Books, with the goal of putting a book in every child’s hand. After staying at Pratham Books for 10 years, Nandan, myself, and Shankar Maruwada started EkStep Foundation, with the goal of giving 200 million children better opportunities to learn.

We are close to reaching the time limit we had set for ourselves, and I think we are going to be able to meet our goals. This is partly because the pandemic has presented us with new opportunities to create digital learning abilities. While there is a raging debate on digital education, we know that nothing can ever replace the close physical, social, and cultural experiences that children have in their classrooms, with their peers and a caring teacher. But in times like this, we have no choice but to think differently. So what can we do to ensure that we reach every last child?

Millions of children who don’t have access to digital education resources are slipping in their learning and will be left behind unless we do something about it. One opportunity is to look to platforms like EkStep, which work with the central and state governments to create various tech-enabled platforms, so that teachers can learn to develop better digital pedagogy and teach more effectively. The other opportunity that this provides is that everybody around a child can teach them, rather than it being limited to their teachers. So how do we enable a whole community to teach a child? How can we use online resources for parents, grandparents, community helpers, or siblings to also keep the learning journey continuous.
There is so much hope even in times of despair. We have to keep on strengthening the Samaaj to develop the capacity to solve all sorts of crises and problems that we will be facing in the future. We have to be more resilient because things will always go wrong, but it is the effort of individuals and groups taking on leadership and innovating, that will light all the lamps and make this world brighter.

I recently read about a 73-year-old gentleman called Chinnathambi in the Idukki district of Kerala. He has been living for years in the middle of a forest in a remote location, where the Muthuvan tribes live. He has a little tea stall which is also a library and the tribals come and borrow books from him. You have to pay Rs.25 as a membership fee and it costs Rs.2 a month to borrow those books. He keeps logs of who has borrowed what books and he realised that people are reading the same books again and again. That is the extent of man’s commitment to reading, to literature, learning, and education. That’s the spirit that I hope all of us will keep in our hearts, especially in these times.

Tackling the Digital Divide

The future is digital whether we like it or not. This doesn’t mean that children don’t need physical classrooms. But in times like these, it’s difficult to imagine what we would do if we didn’t even have digital spaces. This is a real opportunity for the government to understand that having a digital tool in one’s home and in one’s hand is a necessity, just like roti, kapada, makaan, shiksha, and swasthya, we need access to digital public goods. For that to happen on a large scale, the government must universalise access so that there are no children who are left behind. This is one area where the Samaaj should push the Sarkaar and the Bazaar. Digital resources and online education doesn’t mean that you keep children in front of a screen, it could also mean that you use digital to enable the caring adults around the child to access digital resources so that they can continue the child’s education.

The digital divide is very large, but the solution is not to bring everyone down to a level where nobody has access because some children don’t. Instead, we have to level up and ensure access for all. We have to think about this now, because this is not the last pandemic nor the last social crisis that we will see. Climate change is going to bring events that we can’t even imagine right now. We are seeing this play out in Assam and Bihar. So we are going to need remote and distance learning journeys and think about how we can infuse the same value of caring, sharing, and trust-building in this new digital world. As soon as we can go back to the physical, we must and we should, but here is a chance to make even the physical better through digital.

Connect, Collaborate, and Scale

Now is the time when we really need our ecosystems, our philanthropic community, to come together and build the confidence of young entrepreneurs, whether they’re for-profit or non-profit, to be able to access financial and human resources, training, and capacity-building. You never know where a good idea can come from – it’s not only experts or professionals who get good ideas. We need to be able to discover people and draw them in, to share their experiences and take those innovation risks. The government also understands that, especially in this pandemic, the social sector actors are the first responders. They were right there, in touch with the people and able to respond immediately. So I do hope that this ecosystem supporting social entrepreneurs will build up faster than ever.

We all say we should collaborate and do things at scale. But rather than focus on scaling our institutions, we need to concentrate on scaling the mission. The idea, the purpose, the societal mission behind what we do has to scale. That is the real reason we are working in the sector, which means that the way we work and think about scale must reflect that. We have to think about openness and shareable resources. For example, if an entrepreneur develops some kind of toolkit for learning, that entrepreneur should think about how they can make it easier for other people to access this toolkit and even improve on it, rather than just extracting all the value from it for themselves. That is the real meaning of collaboration because we, as institutions, don’t have all the answers. If we want our missions to scale, we have to think about creative collaboration and collaborative creation.

We need to connect with each other, and scale as much as we can without letting the idea of scale debilitate us and make us brittle. We have to scale in a flexible way, where even if your leadership within your organisation crumbles or your institution crumbles, the work will continue. For example, when we decided to start Pratham Books, we found that there were hardly 600 books available in India in all languages for children to actually buy and read. We said, “This doesn’t work in a country where 300 million children need good books in their languages accessible to them.” That’s how we decided to create a sort of a platform approach at Pratham Books. Why should only publishers monopolise book creation? In a country of storytellers, where stories are told every night in every home, why can’t everybody be part of this journey of putting a book in every child’s hand? So we got people who were willing to give their time and talent – writers, illustrators, translators, and editors. We opened up the idea of writing, publishing, and reading, and that’s how the mission scaled. By allowing ideas, content, and tools to be shared and shared widely, we can create ecosystem impact at scale.

Crises Create Opportunities

If we really look at the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, we find that both the Bazaar and Sarkaar were made to serve the Samaaj. Sometimes we get confused about that, but Samaaj institutions have the agency to create real change. Sarkaar and bazaar will do what they have to do, but we have to create processes by which they are held accountable to the larger public interest. Both the state and the markets have become much more powerful than they have ever been, but during the pandemic it was the Samaaj who could reach out and help people immediately.

We need to keep in mind that the Sarkaar is also made up of people, and there will be some who align with your vision and ideas. Find those champions and work with them. It won’t be easy, but when we talk about scale, we know we need the state’s power and the resources. In my 30 years in this sector, we have always found parts of the state more than willing to support us, our ideas, our work, and to give us space inside the Sarkaar system to work. So never lose faith in the fact that the Samaaj is the first sector – we innovate, we bear risk, and we are closest to the problem and therefore closest to providing solutions.

As migrants return home, I hope they are taking with them some of the skills they learned from the cities, bringing them to the villages and understanding their villages’ problems in a new light. In that sense, we will have a whole new generation of education champions to see the potential to make learning groups. If we see migrants returning to the cities, soon, what will be left behind in their villages? What can we create in this crisis for people who are living there permanently, to build themselves out of these hardships? I think we have to focus on learning tools, teaching tools, groups, and keeping the enthusiasm going. We need to focus on creating that social glue to keep the education of the child at the center of a community’s response. To have those few champions that are continuously thinking, “What did my child lose in these few months and how can I help her to continue her learning journey?” After the Latur earthquake, so many interesting social experiments started about education, creating resilient earthquake-proof housing, and women’s groups solidifying for so many actions to be taken. Crises do create opportunities sometimes.

The demand for education has been well-established in India. The health demand is growing, and the pandemic will solidify it. Health is a huge part of education in this country, a key social determinant for education outcomes. With the pandemic, people have begun to understand things in a whole new way. For example, the value of diagnostic tools like a thermometer to check your temperature. This might be an opportunity for education entrepreneurs to use that language of the health sector, which has now become ingrained in people, and bring it to the education sector. How do we create diagnostic tools for people to measure a child’s learning in a very simple way? How can we design simple tools for the people around the child and for the child to do rapid assessments of learning loss and learning gain? This is an opportunity now because people have understood simple measurements to stay healthy. Similarly simple measurements to keep learning healthy would be a new opportunity for all of us in these very difficult times.

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