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How EkStep Foundation harnesses the power of networks

In Conversation with Shradha Sharma, EkStep co-founders Nandan Nilekani, Rohini Nilekani, and Shankar Maruwada talk about adopting a collaborative approach in bringing about change at scale.

How EkStep Foundation harnesses the power of networks

Wednesday October 25, 2023 , 5 min Read

Key Takeaways

  • EkStep Foundation wants to enable access to learning opportunities for every child.
  • The Foundation is utilising technology to democratise access to digital content for children via open digital infrastructure.
  • Sunbird, the open-source platform developed by EkStep, powers the DIKSHA platform to promote inclusive learning.

India is in the midst of a techade, a period where technology will play a transformational role in the country’s progress. For Nandan Nilekani, Rohini Nilekani, and Shankar Maruwada, this techade entails using technology as an aid to improve people’s lives. At EkStep Foundation, its co-founders Nandan, Rohini, and Shankar are utilising technology to improve access to learning through a collaborative effort.

“Technology should be the aid, it should be the enabler. Ultimately, technology is not the purpose but the tool,” says Rohini Nilekani, co-founder and director of EkStep Foundation in Conversation with Shradha Sharma.

The Foundation, set up in 2015, is on a mission to enable access to learning opportunities for every child. EkStep Foundation has developed SunBird, an open source, configurable, and modular digital infrastructure designed for scale. SunBird’s open digital infrastructure supports multiple languages and supports digital educational content dissemination at scale across India. It powers Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), an education ministry-led national platform for school education.

Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and chairperson of EkStep Foundation believes in the power of the network to make solutions that are scalable and affordable.

“Rather than trying to solve a problem for a few people, our belief is to solve it for everybody. Each solution brings about a small change but it all adds up,” says Nandan in Conversation with Shradha Sharma.

EkStep’s efforts are critical at a time when there is an increased focus on improving learning outcomes among students. The Annual Status of Education Report 2023 showed that there was a decrease in the ability to read and solve basic Maths problems among Grade 2 students. The pandemic-related school closures also affected the learning ability of students between Grades 5 and 8. Timely interventions through digital learning modules can be beneficial to bridge the learning gap. And that is EkStep’s endeavour.

“At EkStep we set out on a mission to reach 200 million children over five to six years. To reach that scale, we had to find out the frictions faced by the system. Hence, in the initial phase we created a set of building blocks that could be put together to solve a certain set of problems,” says Shankar Maruwada, co-founder and CEO of EkStep Foundation in Conversation with Shradha Sharma.

Combining forces with the network

The learning ecosystem in India has multiple stakeholders, including schools, parents, teachers, policymakers, and edtech platforms, working to improve the standard and quality of education. However, rather than working in silos, it is beneficial to combine forces for the common mission.

EkStep Foundation is harnessing these networks to develop educational solutions for the masses. It is keen on solving the problem using technology, particularly by using language as a bridge rather than a divide. Gaurav Gupta, chief growth officer, EkStep Foundation says that getting the ecosystem involved has been a game changer.

“Teachers, for instance, needed to have content in 36 languages across 60 boards including NCERT. One option was to do it themselves, but that would have taken a lot of time. By involving the entire ecosystem, including private sector, social sector, and individuals, the social impact was amplified,” says Gaurav in Conversation with Shradha Sharma.

One of the biggest use cases of Sunbird is DIKSHA. It helped digitise content across different boards on a single platform in 36 languages. “School education in India is not just a big, complex, and diverse problem but a multi-year problem. That motivated us to create Sunbird on which DIKSHA was built,” says Shankar.

According to Ekstep, DIKSHA is now the largest and most diversified school platform, with learners having used it ~5.29 billion times to access educational content.

Gaurav explains that while everything can be built from scratch, digital building blocks can accelerate the creation of solutions for people-centric transformation across diverse sectors. He adds that there are 50 plus manifestations, leveraging EkStep’s Sunbird.

In another example, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has been leveraging some of Ekstep’s research initiatives and expertise for its Bhashini mission which allows citizens to access digital content in local languages.

Bringing samaj, sarkar, and bazaar together

Change happens when every individual in the community works tirelessly towards a common mission. In EkStep’s case, it is to support ecosystems that build digital public goods to deliver impactful solutions to 1.4 billion Indians.

To further this goal, Rohini believes that samaj, sarkar, and bazaar (society, government, and market) have to work together in a collaborative manner.

“We need to reduce the friction and cooperate. At EkStep, we ensure that whatever is done is co-created by a number of experienced people, right from design to delivery,” she adds.

Nandan is a firm believer in this philosophy too, having successfully launched Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identification system. He explains that networks help a rapid scale up of solutions. Since it brings everybody to the game, it is an inclusive process.

Employing the network force, EkStep and its digital building blocks have played the role of catalysts in the techade. An auto manufacturer, for instance, can plug into the network and offer upskilling courses to drivers. An affordable private school in Rajasthan, for instance, can have its own branded school learning app. The network empowers these new possibilities, according to Gaurav.

The mission is far from over. EkStep Foundation has launched Bachpan Manao (celebrate childhood), a new initiative for early childhood development and foundational learning. It is targeted at the 25 million children born every year in India.

“We want every parent, every teacher, and every community to get involved in Bachpan Manao and prepare children for the future,” adds Rohini.

As the digital building blocks come together and join forces with the larger community, revolutionary changes in the education system can be unlocked. EkStep is silently enabling it, together with the network, one step at a time.