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Better teachers make better students: Nirav Khambhati

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Coverage Report
Publication: Business Standard

Business Standard

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Financed by Tata Industries, Tata ClassEdge is the Tata’s attempt at delivering or improving the quality of education provided by schools with the use of technology. Started in 2011, the interactive content developed to help teachers teach better soon spread to 2000-odd schools.


But then they realised that not all schools were geared or suited or even willing to pay for content of this kind. Tata ClassEdge pared down the number of schools it served, adopted a more focused approach and has now reached a break even.


Nirav Khambhati, 43, who has been with the Tata’s for the last 19 years (a Tata Administrative Services recruit), worked in various Tata companies. After a few stints overseas, Khambhati came back to India in 2004.


He was hand picked by the chairman Cyrus Mistry – who wanted to look at education not just from a profit motive but from the point of view of what impact it could create – to handle the Tata’s education foray. From February 2014, Khambhati has been leading Tata ClassEdge. Excerpts from an interview with Anjuli Bhargava:


What exactly is Tata ClassEdge trying to do ?


From our perspective, there are two key trends we see. The increase in spending power in countries like India and China implies that there is going to be a lot of pressure on institutions that provide quality education. The supply will always be stretched.


At times we intend to overlook the fact that institutions that get labeled as good or high quality are usually those that deliver the high marks. There is very little focus on 21st century skills, character building, the softer skills required. Our institutions are nowhere near imparting the skills needed for the future.


But the job market is changing very rapidly. Things like creativity, collaboration and critical thinking – stuff that machines cannot do – are going to be the ones that matter.


These two trends are in our view the ones that are going to affect education.


In a country like India, as far as access is concerned we have come a long way but as far as quality goes, we have a long, long way to go. Without that gap being bridged, the divide between the haves and have-nots will only continue to grow.


We started operations in 2011. Tata Interactive – a sister firm – has been supplying e-learning solutions for large global organisations for the last 25 years. How best to use technology to improve learning outcomes is their main focus.


So in 2011, we took a stab at trying to improve quality at schools in India. What we did was to work on the premise that better teachers make better students. We may want to impart 21st century skills but teachers seem to have been left behind in the process. Training systems are thoroughly inadequate. Teaching as a profession has taken a hit with poor pay and very few men coming into the sector.


So we decided to use technology – which we all know is here to stay – to equip teachers in the classroom so that they deliver lesson plans in a new and interactive manner. We have taken the NCERT syllabus and created a digital tool kit for teachers. For example teachers are encouraged to introduce a new concept through a video to the class. Test through quizzes, a activity and games. What is to be taught is determined by the NCERT curriculum but we have more exciting ways to teach it.


So how many schools agreed to try this ?


We expanded rather quickly – almost 2000 schools across India – and then realized we had made a mistake. One, we realized very quickly is that not every school is philanthropic in nature. We found a large number of schools not paying for our products. Two, the cost of servicing these schools was huge – it takes a lot of hand-holding and was becoming very expensive.


So in 2014, we actually took a step back and consolidated. We decided to be more discrete in the schools we work with and now it is around 1200-1300.


Are you making money from this?


Yes, we charge schools on a per classroom basis with the objective that if we become self sustaining, the intellectual property that we create, we can use that to make a difference at schools who cannot afford it.


At government schools, we don’t charge anything – 250 have been done free of charge and 250 more are in the pipeline.


We don’t give out numbers but let me say at 15,000 classrooms now we have achieved a break even at the operating level. We are covering our costs and we are not in a hurry to make money. We have to keep investing in a business like this. If we look at profits too early, we may have to curtail our investment cycles. In businesses like this, you have to dig your heels very deep in.


What are some of your learnings ?


We have changed the user interface over time after we realized that in India there are a number of teachers who have never used a PC. But they are familiar with smart phones. So we have changed a lot of the interface to adapt to this.


Then, we realised we have the content so why not make it available in other ways directly to children. We have now put the content on tablets used by students at home. We have created a series for Tata Sky. We will soon be launching an online content channel of our own. We want to try and reach around 10 million students by 2025. We are currently at 4 million.


People think teachers may resist change but in fact we have found that the penetration of our technology-led content and solutions has gone up and in many cases schools add classrooms based on positive teacher feedback. 20-30 per cent of our annual sales are from existing customers. They use the products and then introduce them in more classrooms.


Give me an example of some of the schools where it is working or where it is working well?


The City Montesseri schools in Lucknow. They have 52,000 students studying with them in Lucknow. 1100 classrooms of which 900 classrooms are using our products and services. They will now be adding another 200 classrooms.


But there are schools across. In Mumbai, we work with Campion, Cathedral and a lot of Catholic schools.


But we even have schools at the other end of the spectrum. Pratham for instance in certain states like Maharashtra, Gujarat use our products at various government schools.