Avanti Learning Centre

Why education in India needs a social
enterprise shake-up

Akshay Saxena is the resourceful entrepreneur disrupting traditional education systems in India to ensure high quality schooling is accessible to all. Fergal Byrne talks to him about collaborative learning and being resource-savvy.

Akshay Saxena is the co-founder of Avanti Learning Centre – a social enterprise that provides low-income high-school students in India an affordable world-class science and maths extra-curricular education programme by using resources, such as books and other students, that are more readily available than highly qualified teachers.

Avanti is run by 100 members of staff and works with 1,500 children in its stand-alone centres in Mumbai, Delhi and Kanput, as well as within schools at the Chennai Corporation Schools. It also provides its science and maths after school programmes to students in three Tibetan schools in Uttrakhand and Karnataka.

Fergal Byrne: Can you tell me a little bit about Avanti, where the idea came from and where you are today?

Akshay Saxena: The key innovation that we are trying to push through is a shift in how students learn, from one that is very centred around teachers lecturing in classrooms, to one where students can do the bulk of their learning themselves.

Our approach is based on collaborative learning, so we get students to work in groups of five or six within the classroom to teach themselves complex concepts in maths and science. There is very limited and specific interventions by people who are very well trained in the subject.

Most of our centres are run by social workers, or people who aren't really trained to be teachers in those subjects. We have a separate team of tutors who come in one day a week and work specifically with students on each topic.

FB: Why do you take this approach?

AS: What we have found is that when you replace a more conventional classroom, lecture-based teaching intervention, with collaborative group work and exercises the students can do together, they tend to do a lot better.

Our 2013 pilot study in Chennai, which was funded by the Rotary Club of Madras East, allowed us to educate 150 students – 100 in conventional lecture-based tutoring and 50 in an Avanti Learning Centre. Students at Avanti’s Learning Centre had 20% higher attendance and lower attrition, and showed distinct learning gains in a short period of six months.

We have started to create an educational paradigm where students are spending many of their classroom hours working together in groups under the guidance of someone who is more akin to a coach, not the best player on the team, but very well versed in getting the best out of their students.

India's education challenge
India’s rapidly growing population is now at 1.27 billion and with 50% of it being made up of people under the age of 25, strains on the education system are almost inevitable.

What we have found is that when you replace a more conventional classroom, lecture-based teaching intervention, with collaborative group work and exercises the students can do together, they tend to do a lot better

Last year the Hindustan Times reported: "Across the country, government schools are facing, among other issues, a severe shortage of teachers."

It also spoke to teachers at Molarbund Government Boys Senior Secondary School in South Delhi's Badarpur, one of which said: “The school has over 100 students in many classes, and we are just 120 teachers for the 7,000 students.

Students spend over 20 hours a week in Avanti’s after-school programmess to ensure that they are receiving a high quality education and are not being compromised by the challenges facing the mainstream education system. The Avanti programme costs students $500 per annum, making it much more affordable than most private education support programmes in India, which are more heavily reliant on specialised tutors and the use of technology.

FB: Ideas about collaborative learning have been around for a long time. What is that you that you do that is different?

AS: I think our biggest innovation was driven more by necessity. Because we could not hire science and maths teachers, we had to make this programme work for people who had often no science training running these classrooms.

So when we pushed ourselves down this path of saying, can we design a programme that someone with a bachelor degree in the arts can teach high school science and maths, we found that we can.

And not only can we do that, we have found that this new curriculum actually works just as well.

I think what is most interesting is that we have been able to disaggregate the two functions that teachers normally perform, one being the subject expertise, and the other managing the classroom well and inspiring kids.

By building a model where the subject expertise is essentially replaced by our content, we have been able to make this much cheaper. Our programmes cost about a fourth of what our competition costs in the marketplace. And so far we have matched or outperformed even the most premium programmes in the country.

FB: What is your vision for Avanti in the future?

AS: By next year we aim to take on an additional 20 members of staff and plan to work with 5,000 students on our programme. We need to get close to a million students over ten years. And by a million students, I mean a million students learning in this way. I think in the next five years what we need to do is be able to standardise this a little bit more, we are still very young and still learning how to do this better.

I think we need to build more systems and turn much of our pen and paper processes into things that can be implemented on computers. Then we can start to really scale the implementation across the public schools and our centres.

FB: Do you see yourself as a disruptive entrepreneur?

AS: I think in many ways what is really exciting is disrupting existing structures. Particularly when it comes to education which is a very well entrenched industry. Both the private sector and the public sector continue to deliver really terrible outcomes and largely refuse to change.

So it has been inspiring to be able to wave results in people's faces that says, 'even when I ignore every single metric that you set as a standard for good education – trained teachers, a large school, playgrounds, and infrastructure investments – I can still produce better outcomes than you.’

I think too often people keep looking at technology as a silver bullet in education, that it will come and magically solve years of problems. In fact, we have found that the bulk of our positive outcomes are driven by relationships between our coaches and students.

The relationship between the person who is the authoratitive figure or the mentor in the classroom and the child – that is the single biggest driver of academic outcomes.

The above interview by Fergal Byrne with Akshay Saxena first published on pioneerspost.com in Feb, 2015.