Education access is a big issue globally, but technology is a great enabler to solve this problem. With this in mind startups like Zaya are working around the clock to improve education from ground up i.e. in low-income and rural areas.
In an interview with Meg Whittenberger, Director-Operations, Zaya Learning we found how Zaya is creating a comprehensive solution for schools to change the way they consume and deliver content offline.
Here's a transcript of the video interview which includes all the details about Zaya's journey, how the idea evolved and how it is being executed currently.
1. For someone who does not know about Zaya, how would you best describe Zaya as an organization?
Zaya is a social enterprise that provides an end-to-end digital learning and blended learning solution for offline schools and learning centers. So, we serve anyone who wants to deliver and consume digital content and assessments offline with the user experience of being online.
The core of this delivery is the ClassCloud, a small device that creates a powerful wireless hotspot. The ClassCloud is layered with software designed for each of our users - content creators, administrators, parents, teachers, and most importantly, students. Educators can subscribe to our digital videos and question banks or create their own lesson plans, videos, PDFs, and assessments and put them on the platform for students. After students learn or take assessments on the platform, stakeholders receive student level and class level analytics and recommendations on learning.
Finally, we provide design, training, and implementation support to make this all happen in schools.
2. Share more about your company's core value proposition? What problem are you solving and for whom?
The internet is a great equalizer in many ways because it makes lots of information and content widely available and, in many cases, free of cost. But roughly 2/3 of people globally are still offline, so this revolution is useless to them. Meanwhile, we are facing an education crisis in most countries around the world. In India, we are witnessing a massive teacher shortage and huge classrooms with kids at highly varied skill levels. Thoughtful technology and good content have the potential to alleviate a lot of these problems for schools, but if we wait for the internet to become reliable enough and affordable enough for use in these markets, it will be too late for all these kids.
3. How have you distributed the big value proposition into suite of products? Can you share more details on each product and service?
Our goal is to build a product that works even for people who are not comfortable using technology. Education is a complex process and many of our users are not very comfortable with technology, so we work to anticipate their problems and questions an improve our product for them.
In product terms, this has resulted in a plug and play ClassCloud with a battery pack and inbuilt wifi, a suite of apps and analytics tools that are easy to use, a content management system that is flexible across different curricula, and interactive content for grades 1-5.
In terms of services, we offer program design and teacher training on blended learning, technology, classroom management, and the nitty gritty of the different blended learning models for integrating the Zaya platform into schools. We also provide implementation support, which currently consists of regular visits from a Zaya School Implementation Manager who knows our product in and out and a Customer Support team who is working to resolve any tech or content issues very quickly.
4. What has been the market response till now? Can you share main challenges of technology integration especially in the low-income segment?
Response has been very positive. We have 3 times as many full school deployments in India as we did last year and our base of other users is also growing all the time.
But any kind of change in education is slow. Blended learning is a huge shift from the current system. So the major challenges are related to changing mindsets of parents and teachers to understand that quality learning can look many different ways. People are used to seeing notebooks filled up and teacher standing in front of a classroom. And like anything new, we have to push people to push themselves through the initial hiccups and questions to really see how the product can fit well into their school.
Other challenges, like infrastructure, content, and cost, are usually solvable over time. We have also found ways to help qualifying schools finance the upfront hardware costs, such as alternative financing programs through donors. We lease donor-funded equipment to schools, which are then only responsible for ongoing support and content costs. If schools meet certain learning metrics at the end of two years, they qualify to keep the equipment free of cost.
5. Why are you or Neil or anyone in the team passionate about this? What is your vision?
Neil, myself, and many others on our team have seen a lot of cases around the world where Zaya would solve major roadblocks. We believe that lack of access to quality educational content shouldn’t be the reason kids aren’t learning in a world where the internet is flooded with resources. In short, everyone on our team is passionate about bringing quality education to the last mile, and we believe that thoughtful technology is part of the solution for empowering these teachers and students today.
6. Where do you see your company in 12 or 18 months from now?
A major focus now is to build out a world-class adaptive learning platform. Adaptive learning can be hugely powerful in schools where children are behind grade level. We are also working on Android apps to connect to our smartphone users away from the ClassCloud.
In terms of growth, we are looking at markets outside of India because we recognize that this is a global problem. And our team is constantly expanding, which is great to see.
7. What is the biggest need for Zaya currently?
As we build out the product, we spend a lot of time hiring. We are always looking for good engineers and instructional designers. We’re also always looking for the right partners, both in terms of people who can help us prove different use cases but also in terms of really high quality content partners who want to reach the last mile. And yes, sometime in the future, we will go to raise another round.
8. Walk us through various reasons why Zaya’s affordable Blended Learning model is special?
We are a young company, but Neil has been working on the ClassCloud and piloting non-profit programs using it since 2010. Since then, we have spent a lot of time in the field with our users. We’re building something for them, so we have really worked hard to understand our users and simplify and improve their user experience.
9. Who would you call your competitors? And how are you different?
Indian schools have seen a lot of ed tech and digital content, like Educomp, Tata ClassEdge, Edurite. The big difference from Zaya is that most of this content is not designed for 1:1 learning.
Globally, there are tons and tons of blended learning platforms, but the majority of them work only online.
The other major difference is that when building our product, Zaya is always thinking about the entire system end to end, from tech to content to implementation support. I don’t want our customers to have any doubts in their mind about how they will use the product.
10. What are the biggest challenges of your edtech startup?
Education is very complicated, so naturally we have made a lot of changes along the way. We don’t have all the answers, so we have to try new things. In a product where content is related to tech is related to implementation, this can pose challenges.
The other big challenge is always recruiting enough talent for our growth.
11. Tell us about your team, who do you have supporting you? How did this start?
Our team is an awesome group of talented people working on tech development, content development, training, implementation support, marketing, and operations. We are around 25 people right now.
In terms of investors, we have Pearson’s Affordable Learning Fund backing us as well as our angel investor, Bhavtosh Vajpayee, who is an MD at Barclays Asia. Both investors have been very supportive and critical in our growth.
We also have a really strong network of other outside supporters, ranging from blended learning experts in the US to policy makers here in India to business people globally, who believe in our mission and provide us with a lot of guidance and support. We spend a lot of time getting different perspectives and learning from what others have done.
12. What/Who motivates you? Any thought leader or companies with innovation which you follow for success? Whether in the EdTech space or in general?
Personally, our children motivate me the most. Watching them learn using our product and get excited about coming to class is really what keeps me motivated.
And yes, I do follow a lot of edtech companies and thought leaders in the education and training space more generally. I read most of what Knewton, Ed Elements, EdSurge, and the Clayton Christensen Institute at Harvard put out. In this field, there is a lot we can learn from each other!
You can also watch the Hangout interview embedded below.
We apologize for the discrepancy in the audio.
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