Big Idea

New-age pedagogy

Educational technology start-up Zaya Learning Labs is redefining classroom teaching by using innovative technology

Soumik Kar

Zaya in Mongolian stands for destiny or fate. But here, it refers to the story of a young Mongolian girl, Airun Zaya, whose destiny changed from a life of abject poverty to one of dignity, thanks to the intervention of a young engineer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Neil D’Souza, an engineer and ex-Cisco employee along with Soma Vajpayee, an ex-Citibanker, launched Zaya Learning Labs to provide high quality educational content to the underprivileged and thus transform the lives of young children.

Zaya was transformed from an illiterate girl to one who later developed, propagated and taught educational content to kids in a few years. D’Souza explains, “While I was working with Cisco in the Bay Area, I got involved with educational programmes there. Later, I started volunteering with educational institutes and saw a lot of traction around educational content, so I decided to launch my own start-up.”

D'Souza quit Cisco and travelled to 12 orphanages and schools around the world. He spent a lot of his time at two orphanages in Indonesia and Mongolia and realised the need to develop cross-platform content simple enough for a non-tech savvy user as well. After he developed the product, a lot of schools evinced interest. But the biggest challenge he faced was that all his content was in English. So, they started translating the lessons in the local language and made over 400 lessons for the children.

Zaya was founded as a non-profit organisation that worked with Teach For India, in government schools undertaking pilot programmes. But government apathy and bureaucracy were frustrating hurdles. D’ Souza and his team had, meanwhile, discovered the massive potential of understaffed ‘affordable’ private schools catering to the same kind of students at low fees. So the company was registered as a for-profit entity in May 2013.

Something new
Zaya offers a set-top box for schools and an in-built battery priced at Rs.80,000 that offers access to cloud content. The content can be accessed even with no internet connectivity. This includes Zaya’s own educational content that is free, as well as subscription-based offerings from its partner Pearson Education. The content gets synced to the device after a school subscribes to it. However, the class cloud has to be periodically synced to update content, which requires an internet connection. Zaya’s learning platform collects data, does assessments, spots gaps in learning and rectifies them by tutoring in those areas. The core class cloud device can be customised as per client request. Each lesson is a combination of videos, interactive practice questions and a quiz. The products are designed for children from grade I—V, except for a client in West Bengal, who uses the content for grade XII. The next academic year will see content generated for students from grade VI—VIII. 

Simplified learning
The company has a multi-pronged approach to integrate the product into classrooms and for those who can afford it at home. The first prong is blended learning. The teacher introduces the concept and after that the technology is used to personalise and teach these concepts. The teacher then checks the analytics to discover a student’s shortcomings and the content is then personalised for the student.

The second prong is rotational learning. The classroom is divided into three groups for hands-on activity, teacher sessions and the last is the technology platform. The next day, the groups are shuffled again. The teacher receives the report from the group assigned to the technology platform, and tutors the students accordingly. 

A third mode of delivery is the flip model. Since Zaya’s content is available online as well, a child can watch videos and take tests at home. In this model, the students watch and listen to lectures at home and then use class-time for tackling difficult problems and working in groups. Currently, Zaya doesn't have any school using the flip model. The fourth model used by schools is the lab model where teaching is done in the classroom and then the student goes to the lab to use Zaya's products.  

“In the past, educational technology starts-ups would provide only a projector which would in effect teach the content, replacing the teacher completely. Zaya’s products are designed to provide vital feedback and complement the teacher,” adds D’Souza. Echoing the same thought, Arvind Nagarajan, investment director at Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) says, “Unlike many players in this space, Zaya's solution was designed to solve the problems of the classroom. The holistic class cloud enables a plug-n-play operation that addresses infrastructural gaps (connectivity, bandwidth, power supply) and ease of use for both teachers and students.” 

 What really separates Zaya from its competitors is its cost-saving facility offered to schools. Zaya’s services can be availed at Rs.400 for a subject, per child annually, while a competitor’s content for a single subject would cost a school Rs.3,000 per child annually. This is because Zaya’s class cloud permits content to be stored locally which allows unlimited downloading on user endpoints like tablets and PCs.

Not so smooth sailing
Even so, not everything has been hunky dory for D’Souza and his team. Challenges abound in an underserved but critical sector such as education in India. “Attracting funds was never an easy proposition as the average venture capitalist looks at investing in a business which will be worth $1 billion in 6-7 years; in education, it typically takes 15-20 years to reach that size because of the inherent long term nature of the business,” he explains. “The kind of investors who invest in educational technology start-ups are those who understand the education business and are in it for the long-term. Quite naturally roping in Pearson was a good strategic fit,” adds D’Souza. 

Attracting the right talent too has been tough for Zaya as it is a low paying social enterprise rather than a company. To overcome this, Zaya is going in for a Series A round, which will enable it to pay higher remuneration and attract the right talent. But the biggest stumbling block has been the constant battle with the learning system prevalent in India. Parents are usually convinced that rote learning is the only way to study. It’s difficult to convince them of the superiority of understanding concepts. To combat it, D’Souza and his team are raising awareness of the benefits of skill-based learning by pitching to principals and by roping in CEOs to promote the cause. 

Future play
Zaya will also be launching two new initiatives this year — it will introduce a mobile English tutoring app for students above grade VIII and open up Zaya’s online learning platform to anyone who wants to create their own educational content. This can either be original content or mixed with existing content, curated under Zaya’s content guidelines.

Arvind Nagarajan, Investment director, Pearson Affordable Learning  FundWhile Zaya is primarily a products company, it also provides implementation support services by assisting schools in the design and implementation of its products. This involves visiting schools, providing feedback and training teachers to use its products and content effectively.

Apart from India, Zaya’s products are now available in Zambia, Mongolia and Indonesia and will soon be available in the US and South Africa with slightly modified content. D’Souza is eyeing a foray into the northeast, eastern states and south India including Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu where government efforts to integrate technology with education are on. 

Zaya has seen its presence grow from 15 schools in 2013 to 70 with 24,000 students currently using its products, all of this without a sales team in place. D’Souza expects to add 40 more schools to his client roster by December this year and 1,400 more schools by the end of 2016. The seed-funding bagged from PALF will help here as will the current round of Series A funding.

While the targets are ambitious, D'Souza is fairly confident that they can be met. That’s because Zaya will be partnering with schools, standalone as well as chains and foundations to give it more access to schools. The other factors include its mobile app, along with international demand plus the addition of grades VI—VIII in the coming year. The last is significant because currently between grades I—V, the usage and application varies. Some schools use the class cloud for grades I—III, while others use it for grades III—V. On an average, a school has 200 users. By adding grades VI—VIII the number of users can increase exponentially to a 1,000 in a single school by D’ Souza’s reckoning. “Zaya is much like the Starbucks model in education. You take a Barista, decompose it and create a good enough coffee that you can replicate around the world with the right people and the right tools. If there were scale limits, I wouldn’t be doing something like this,” says D’Souza. 

However, Nagarajan of Pearson warns that scaling school education-technology start-ups is inherently extremely challenging. “The public sector moves slowly and the private sector is extremely fragmented. The buying patterns involve long lead times, varying desires, and difficulty with implementation. Ultimately, the key to long-term success is effective implementation,” explains Nagarajan.

Citing non-disclosure agreements signed during the Series A, D’Souza is cagey about revealing how much funding he has raised so far. However, he says the company expects to achieve a turnover of Rs.4 crore this year and hit Rs.10 crore next year. Break-even point is yet to be achieved, but D’Souza expects that with the current organic growth rate, it should be achieved in 2016 by simply adding another 200 schools as their clients. 

In 2013, Zaya trained two women —Manju and Meenu. Initially, the two could not speak English and the children they taught couldn’t identify numbers even in grade V. With Zaya’s help, today around 600 children can solve complex Math equations. Manju and Meenu too evolved into confident and outgoing English speakers with great teaching skills. With many success stories to its credit, Zaya aims to change many lives by simplifying learning for them.