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IA Forum Interview: Neil D'Souza, Zaya Learning Labs


International Affairs Form:  Please describe the Zaya Learning Model and how it is being put into practice right now.

Neil D’Souza: Zaya works with very low-income schools. What we do at the beginning of the year, we break students into different groups based on their learning levels. This is done through taking an adaptive assessment for both Math and English. Once the students are broken into different groups, we develop lesson plans that are rendered through the technology to the teacher in the class for each group. 

For example, Group 1 might be working with tablets in a classroom running a lab with computers for some time in a day, where the other group may be reading and solving some homework, the other group would be working with teachers. What this allows us to do is to break a classroom size which is really big and not engaged into smaller groups so the teacher can work with students and students can work at their own pace.

IA-Forum: What about the Class Cloud, Zaya Labkit, and Adaptive Learning Environment?

Neil D’Souza: The Class Cloud is a portable WiFi storage and server combined into one. It runs off a battery pack and it allows it to be used anywhere in the world. This small device is carried by a teacher into a classroom. When turned on, it creates a strong WiFi so the students can connect with any device, with a laptop or tablet, or it can be taken into a computer lab where students can connect to desktops.

Once students are connected, they get their individual profile on a platform, a platform that is running on this box. The platform is constantly collecting data for the student, how do you learn, style of learning, demographic data that is regularly pushed down the student as part of the learning process. This data then, when the Class Cloud gets any sort of internet connectivity, whether it be mobile or a regular LAN at an internet café, syncs back to our cloud and that data is used by us to process student learning profiles, which is then sent out to the box so that students can continue learning. 

The lab is essentially a collection of everything a school would need to run a blended learning environment, like described in the first question. You need earphones, you need tablets, you need a projector maybe for the teacher, and you need lesson plans, a power supply, the Class Cloud.  All of this is packaged with the curriculum, with the content, into a kit for the schools so they can run it off anywhere in the world. 

IA-Forum: How is Zaya different from other organizations looking to improve education with technology in poverty ridden countries? 

Neil D’Souza: Zaya’s focus is mostly on learning outcomes, and we believe the technology and data we are collecting are only tools to allow us to make the right interventions at the right time. Our focus is on the learning model. We are trying to figure out what is the learning model that can allow a very low quality teacher that is working in an affordable private school to deliver the best quality instruction to the students, and at the same time, facilitate an environment so that students can also learn at their own pace.

We are quite mindful that nobody has done this before, and it is not easy, because this means getting the implementation model right. Most other companies have either developed technology and put it in the classroom, which is not being used today, or they focus on the teacher training element, which again does not incorporate technology. What that does is leave a big gap, and there is no tracking of what is happening in these classrooms. Any intervention year on year is pretty much a repetition of what has been happening. At Zaya, we believe there has to be a change and we need to track, measure, improve and continuously deliver.

IA-Forum: What is the exact change in the education institution that you are looking to enact with technology? What is the learning gap that Zaya is trying to close?

Neil D’Souza: The learning gap that we are working to reduce is a massive grade level deficiency in students and a capacity issue among teachers. For example, teacher quality is very poor in low income private schools because they get paid something like $100 per month. They do not have any time to invest in their own professional development, so when they are put in a traditional classroom and expected to act as a traditional instructor, they clearly have a deficiency.

Our role is that, instead of going and trying to make them better subject experts, we want to make them better facilitators, which might be easier to profile and get teachers for. By making them better facilitators and allowing them to master only one or two skills that are key in facilitating, what we believe is that technology can then assist them and recommend them to take the necessary actions, so that the net result of the classroom is a more personalized, more student-driven learning environment rather than an instructor-led environment. The teacher is really a big portion of our solution and how we are trying to bring about change with teachers that we find in these types of schools.

The second big gap that we are trying to close is the grade-level deficiency. So, students in Grade 5, Grade 6, actually have a learning level of Grade 1. That big gap cannot be bridged by just purely improving the quality of teachers in a year. It needs a lot of remedy learning. It needs a lot of adaptive learning and self-based learning. Through our model, every day a child gets some time or every two days, gets some amount of time to actually learn at his own pace, learn at his own level so that technology can adapt to it and then guide them slowly towards their actual grade level.

This is a very tough problem because even year on year we are going to see maybe a 1.2 level jump or 1.3 level jump which is very hard because they are still stopping at Grade 5. In order to change the system where children can learn at their own pace, we have to kind of change the mindset of the school so they are aware that just promoting children two grades is not an indicator of their learning ability. Eventually at Grade 8, they are going to have massive skill deficiency and it is not going to be productive for them as citizens. 

We have to almost do a systemic change in how school owners think, how parents think, how teachers think and how students work.

IA-Forum:  How do you make the Zaya Learning Model and your other products and services available to schools?

Neil D’Souza: We look at three types of schools depending on the types of fees they charge students. One group of schools ranges from anything from zero to 400 rupees, that is up to eight dollars or five dollars a month, then from 400-1000 rupees and then 1000-1500. They all come under the low cost private school sector.

With the low schools, we work in conjunction with some agencies that can fund the infrastructure cost of the laboratory. So, we go to the school and we tell them to pay for the services, the ongoing services, so we know they are invested in the program and in the change.  The infrastructure cost, which is the cost of the tablet and the hardware, can be borne by another entity. So, this happens either to non-profits or other foundations that are linked to invest in schools that want to bring about learning outcome changes.

The second group of schools, again, is schools that have had some sort of infrastructure in the past so they have a computer lab they have invested in but is not being used. These schools, we only sell them the class cloud and the curriculum and the content. It can be for a period of up to a year. 

The third group of schools, which are in the 1000-1500 range, again buy a lab kit or they buy just our platform because they have some sort of internet connectivity. All of them fall under the so-called low cost learning bracket, and we make it available directly through us or through our partners.

IA-Forum: In your opinion, what basic technology does a school need to function well and educate properly? How far are we from having that basic technology present in all schools?

Neil D’Souza: Technology in the school can mean many things. Even a pencil is a technology or a board is a technology. I think when we say technology it should first come in to school administration because what technology does well is operationalize mundane tasks. Like if you think of any other industry, like airline booking, it has not made flying a plane any different, but it has optimized how we book tickets. In the same way, I think school owners can adapt, adopt very simple technologies for attendance tracking, for payment, systems for notification which can make their lives very simple and easy. 

In terms of simple technology to change outcomes, I think it is possible. But in order to change outcomes, you need to collect a lot of data because the level of teachers to make a decision is not very refined yet. I think when you are looking at such systems, you need a complex system but that system should be wrapped with a simple layer of user interface that children can use to learn. 

While the technology might seem complex, the interface of the user experience should still be kept simple. I think our whole desire is to take moves toward that step, that direction, and I think there are other organizations also building simple technology now. I know there are schools which have smart boards, and that is the best way to teach masses in one group, so everyone can observe a group of 40 children. 

That would work great if you are starting young, but the fundamental thing is that children learn differently and at different paces, so what you are effectively doing is you are replacing a bad teaching instructor with a standardized teaching instructor, and still not addressing the problem of different learning levels of students and different learning styles. That just widens the gap.

IA-Forum: Do you think that Zaya would have been possible 20 or even 10 years ago without the technology we have today? If not, what are the advancements that made it possible? How do you feel Zaya will evolve with the developing technology to come?

Neil D’Souza: I think 10 or 20 years ago, there was technology to do this. This is nothing new. We have been using adaptive tests. We have been using adaptive assessments for higher education. It was probably not accessible or cheap, and that is the major difference or advancement that we see in technology now, is that you can buy tablets that are extremely affordable. We have mobile technologies that allow us to collect data from remote places in the world and you have a lot of content available to give you other channels that can be rendered to different mediums to allow students to learn.

This might have not been possible ten years ago, but I think there is an exponential growth in content and in learning programs that are  working toward enhancing learning and I think where Zaya fits, Zaya’s role is to get out a systemic, standardized way of implementing all of these content sources, different methodologies into a simple way that a teacher, a low capacity school teacher, can use it effectively to drive the same net results in a classroom as a very high performing teacher.

That is the difficult part, and to make that successful, we need a lot of data collection, a lot of big data analysis, and Zaya is probably going to evolve into a company which does that over time.  We would have data about a demographic of students that nobody is capturing at the level that we are doing, and by doing so, we would be able to make better decisions or better learning plans for teachers to work with them.

IA-Forum: What are the next steps of development for Zaya in terms of expanding your reach and technology development?

Neil D’Souza: Zaya’s next step is to make the technology clearer and more robust and make it simple. I think simple is best, and we are constantly collecting feedback, rapidly prototyping to understand how to simplify the process more for the teachers, how to simplify the process more for the students and make it as simple as a whiteboard or a blackboard for the teacher and a book for the child. I think when we develop simplicity, technology will really scale, and I don’t think that we’re at that stage now.

In terms of our expansion plans, Zaya is planning to expand slowly because we want to be sure of how our program is affecting the outcomes, so we are taking it one step at a time. After this year working in Bombay, we will slowly look for very strategic partners in another region where we can use our templates and someone else can plug in the content and deliver the systems. 

I think we will wait for another couple of years before we really take it out to the masses.


Neil D’Souza is CEO at Zaya Learning Labs.


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