Nandan Nilekani, Infosys co-founder and former head of India’s Aadhaar identity project, is knee-deep in EkStep, a social enterprise that is building an ambitious technology platform to deliver learning material in a personalised way to 200 million Indian children below the age of 10.
“It is learning personalisation on a scale never attempted before, where technology will intuitively gauge the aptitude and interests of the child to deliver learning through worksheets, games and other apps,” said Nilekani who has co-founded EkStep with his wife, Rohini. The Nilekanis have donated $10 million to the project.
It is yet another re-imagining for Nilekani, now 60, who has traversed the corporate, government and political arena to return full-circle to a startup. Nilekani came into the limelight first as the co-founder and CEO of Infosys, and then as head the government’s the massive unique identity project providing Aadhaar numbers to hundreds of millions of Indians. He joined the Congress Party last year to content the Lok Sabha election from Bengaluru but lost.
Nilekani says his current status in the Congress Party is “inactive”. Though he did not elaborate, the dormant status is likely a prelude to quitting politics.
EkStep came out of Rohini’s decade-and-a-half work in the field of education through non-profits, Akshara Foundation and Pratham Books. “Despite the efforts of the government, NGOs and the market and the thousands of crores spent, we haven’t moved the needle in the last 15 years in getting young kids to learn,” said Rohini Nilekani. “There are 200 million children who haven’t mastered the basics, we have to come up with a new way of addressing this problem.”
The startup is working to spreading applied literacy and numeracy, in other words reading and basic math, for children between 5 and 10 years of age. “Ours is an inch-wide, mile-deep strategy and we will focus on making the foundational skills strong,” said Nilekani. Currently, its work is being tested on a few hundred children in Mysore. EkStep’s goal is to launch on a large scale next year.
“With EkStep, the Nilekanis will make the best possible impact under the circumstances,” said fellow co-founder and chairman emeritus of Infosys, NR Narayana Murthy. However, education can only be improved on a large scale if meritocracy and good governance are brought into the selection of teachers, running of government schools, in allowing full freedom to private schools to flourish and in creating a voucher scheme for poor children, he said.
“I have not seen any country leapfrog on a large scale in the standard of primary education without such changes. I hope that Nandan and Rohini prove me wrong,” said Murthy.
EkStep’s ambitious goal is only do-able with the use of technology, said K. Ganesh, serial entrepreneur who founded education startup Tutorvista and sold it to the U.K.-based Pearson for 1,000 crores in 2011. “As Nandan has shown with the Unique Identity project, he has the vision and ability to think and implement at scale,” said Ganesh. “
It is not an easy one to pull off but Nandan is uniquely positioned to make it happen,” he said. Indeed, technology forms the backbone of EkStep’s ambitious goal. The recent technological advances and newer understanding of learning will be opportune for EkStep whose ‘anytime-anywhere’ open learning platform can be accessed through ever-cheaper smartphones and tablet computers with touch screens and better user interfaces.
“The content can be delivered anywhere — a child in a remote village, a child at a tuition centre or a child in a classroom at a government school — and the platform will customize the learning to the child’s individual level,” said Nilekani.
EkStep’s small team of 20 is housed in an office just minutes away from the Nilekani residence in Koramangala. Along with the Nilekanis, data analytics specialist Shankar Maruwada who worked on the Aadhar project as well as data-crunched for Nilekani’s Lok Sabha election, is the third co-founder.
The technology platform will be created in-house but EkStep will work with a coalition of experts around the world for content creation, multi-channel distribution and technology as well as with experts in the field of education, learning and child psychology. “The goal is to democratise access to a strong educational foundation, whether the child is in Meghalaya, Bihar or Karnataka,” said Nilekani.