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Photograph by Vishal Koul

Good Businesses 2017

Fun with Numbers
Vikalp aims to democratise maths among children of government and affordable private schools through learning aids

Shilpa Elizabeth Abraham

Budding mathematicians: Dinesh Gupta, co-founder and CEO, Vikalp India

Let’s rewind back to our childhood — we were probably three or four year-olds when we were introduced to the world of numbers. First came the counting of numbers 1,2,3,4… on our fingers. And the as addition and subtraction came along we started folding and extending our fingers. Then came multiplication, division, and more abstract concepts that were beyond demonstration through fingers. Somewhere along the journey, Mathematics became a nightmare to many. The math-phobia among students might be as old as our education system — which hasn’t changed too much from the rote learning days — but it continues to be perceived as an abstract and complex subject. 

Dinesh Gupta, a JNU scholar and former journalist, draws his question from this reality. “As children why did we use our fingers for counting?” he asks. “They were our first form of learning aids. After that, concepts started getting more complex and we stopped getting any learning aids,” says Gupta, who is now trying to change this through his startup, Vikalp. According to the 11th Annual Status of Education Report that was released in 2017, only 27.7% of class III students could solve a two-digit subtraction and a mere 26% of class V students could solve simple division problems. This means that over half of the children in primary schools complete primary grades without understanding the basics of arithmetic.  

Vikalp — the Hindi word for alternative — is Gupta’s initiative to provide an alternative learning and teaching method of understanding Mathematics for elementary classes. Gupta and his partner, Neha Choudhary (previously an advisor to the Prime Minister’s office as an editor in the National Technical Research Organisation) are attempting to inculcate learning aids and math kits as part of the existing NCERT curriculum for kids in nursery to class V.

A narrow street that can barely fit a two-wheeler leads up to the school tucked towards an interior corner of a neighbourhood that is far from posh. Little Rose is one of the private schools that is affordable for the residents in the neighbourhood, charging them a fee of 600 per student per month. We enter a nursery classroom to find three-year-olds immersed in activities using number cubes — one of the manipulatives provided by Vikalp. Cubes might seem silly to adults, but it initiates kids into the world of Mathematics by enabling them to effectively grasp the value and quantity of numbers as well as the meaning of addition and subtraction, through touch and feel. 

“Earlier only 50% of the students understood mathematical concepts. After introducing Vikalp, they understand concepts faster. Over 80% of the students are getting it right and grasping these a lot quicker,” says Padam Singh, principal, Little Rose Convent School. After experimenting the play-and-learn method for a few classes, he adopted Vikalp for classes from nursery to Class V. He feels it works well for the teachers also, who get good guidance on teaching effectively without any pressure. 

Each student has a unique way of learning; a standard way of teaching for 40 students doesn’t turn out to be effective in most situations. 

“With our method, the teacher comes and distributes tools corresponding to the chapter and instead of walking into the classroom saying we are going to learn about fractions. Students get the space to learn through experience — here they discover and construct knowledge, ” says Gupta. The teacher facilitates playing with those tools and thus their role turns into that of a facilitator rather than that of an instructor, adds Choudhary.

Vikalp aims to be a mass-market player, by bringing about a change that touches children from all spheres of the society. Of the total 151 schools they currently work with, 50 are government schools and around 80 are affordable private schools. In well-known schools, each child is supplied with a kit that takes care of topics for an entire year and the kid can take it home. The school is charged 1,400 per child, per year. When it comes to affordable private schools, the company follows a model called team learning. It sets up a learning centre at the school and supplies four kids with one kit. The kids sit in groups of four and engage in the activities at these learning centres. For this the school is charged 450 per child per year. Vikalp is also working with 24 government schools in Delhi funded by the CSR wing of General Electric (GE), US. The company requires around 96,000 to provide products and services to one school. In October 2016, they got a grant of around 12 lakh from GE. To manage the shortfall Vikalp reduced the cost of the kid and chipped in 4 lakh from its kitty.

Apart from the kits and the course books, teachers are provided with demonstrations and training every quarter. The activities and applications are followed by assessment reports, which give the holistic picture of a child’s development. In a survey done in Jharkhand, among 19 schools belonging to the Carmel group, it was found that after 20 months of usage of Vikalp products, kids recorded a 32% improvement in their marks on an average. 

While that was a comprehensive score for Gupta, it took quite a while for his efforts to add up. 

Learning the hard way
Gupta left his journalism career and started a publishing house for kids of classes I-VIII in 2003 in order to bring about a change in the education sector. While it was a period during which he got to meet leading educationists across India, it still left him dissatisfied as he had to compromise the content and nature of the books under market pressure. 

It was along this journey that he came across the concept of using concrete materials for learning purposes and this struck a chord within him. By 2009, he started channelising attention towards developing products with wood, leather etc, but that turned out to be expensive. So, he decided to make it out of scrap materials like corrugated sheets, wires, wire panels and cardboard sheets. The R&D process continued till around 2012. On top of using recycled materials for products, he also ensured that the products are kid-friendly — they are lightweight, blunt and soya ink was used instead of the carcinogenic printing ink. With an in-house designing team and a manufacturing unit, in which they have invested around 20 lakh, the duo was ready to hit the market in 2013. Gupta and Choudhary were hoping to flood the market with their products but some schools bought their products and rarely did anything with it — which is when they realised the need for a training team for schools.

By 2014, the company’s trainers started visiting schools showing teachers how to teach each chapter with the help of kits. Slowly schools started warming up to the concept. However, there were still hindrances. “We found out that in schools, textbooks were their Bible. Their priority was to use the books and only if they got spare time they were using our products,” remembers Gupta. The team, hence, came up with a course book to allow students to apply the concepts in the form of book-based applications. 

The team developed a software assessment platform to give a complete diagnostics of a kid, based on his activity. It gives insights into what are his strengths, weaknesses — for example he is good in geometry and bad in sequences — and remedies to it. “We also started differentiating between application and activity — some kids are good in activity but don’t know how to apply it on paper and some the other way around,” says Gupta. 

Vikalp currently works with 52 schools in Jharkhand, 28 in Delhi, around 30 in Punjab and 12 in Bengaluru. The biggest challenge for the team has always been and continues to be the mindset of schools and teachers, especially those who have been teaching for 10-20 years. “Teaching has been about discipline all these years, but this methodology is more about peer learning and kids tend to get a little noisy. It’s not easy for all the teachers to unlearn what they have been practising so long,” notes Choudhary. Typically, the team has to visit a school around 12 times and sees a conversion period of three to five months. 

The way forward
The company was incorporated formally in 2015 with an investment of 1 crore from the founders. In FY17 Vikalp provided paid services to 151 schools, of which around 80 are affordable private schools, covering 50,400 students. Vikalp is also supported by FSG, an international NGO which is helping the company to scale up by providing grants to affordable private schools. 

In a survey conducted by FSG among 4,300 low-income families across eight cities in India, it was found that 81% of the families sent their kids to affordable private schools. “At an early stage, learning happens through activities and we were looking for companies who could facilitate that. We went through products of over 100 companies and Vikalp’s products seemed like a right fit, because Mathematics and English were considered to be two important attributes for better life by parents. So, we partnered with them and started helping them with business planning, strategy, how to approach the market and so on,” says Vikram Jain, director at FSG. 

After raising a Series-A fund of 3.25 crore from Acumen in 2013, the team is planning to go for its next round in two to three months and has plans to set up after-school learning centres to conduct after school hours activities, a proposition to which schools seem to be more open. If the school provides the faculty, 70% of the revenues would go to it and if not 30%. “Till now we were viewed as an expense, but this gives the school an additional revenue source after school hours. So, the response has been good and we have signed up for five centres in the last two months,” notes Gupta. The company is also planning to develop an in-house tech team and gamify their activities for students. The team plans to onboard around 350 schools and have 121 learning centres in place by end of FY18. It has its sights on markets such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Odisha. 

But Gupta knows a rapid geographical expansion would be a tough task. He says, “We are in talks with players in these states, but the issue for us is that we cannot expand wherever we want. We are not offering a tech product and, hence, we need a critical mass of around 10-12 schools in a location to start offering our services.” 

Vikalp, which clocked revenue of 1.21 crore in FY16 covering 27,300 students, saw the student numbers almost double to 50,400 in FY17, fetching a revenue of 3.26 crore. Through experiential learning Vikalp hopes to churn out more math enthusiasts and continue making the subject a lot more fun, than something to be feared.

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