A few years ago, we were shopping for education options for our son. We were worried that his natural curiosity, the joy of discovering something new, the innate triumph in learning will be gone. That they will be taken away from him by the milestone driven educational system.
We set out looking for an education model that values creativity over all else. A system that enables children to create instead of pushing them to write more on paper. A system that relies on mentorship instead of evaluations. A system where children identify problems that need to be solved and go about solving them instead of rote memorization. A system where it is possible for children to enjoy learning.
With these fundamental principles guiding us, we began our part-time research at first and later, full time. Our first EdTech adventure was just beginning.
Step 1 - Instant gratification ¶
As technologists, our focus was on, well, technology. We had a simple plan that played to our strengths.
A gamified learning system that can run on the raspberry pi that doesn’t need internet connectivity. Affordable, easy to deploy and batch upgrade with site visits.
We built quick prototypes and started testing it with kids including our little boy. Our initial results were more than hopeful. We had fantastic engagement. Interest levels were high and the kids were asking the right questions.
Step 2 - The big let down ¶
However, the engagement tapered off way sooner than we expected. The focus turned to the mechanics rather than the experience. The worst bit was when we saw that the kids were not connecting to each other. The results did not improve with more variety or better graphics.
We were at crossroads, we could continue our plan to get profitable and rethink engagement or forget the sunk costs and get back to the drawing board or worse, move onto other things.
We thought long and hard and decided, the problem wasn’t with our idea, but our vehicle. In an already hyper-disconnected world, we were trying to provide a solution that incentivized disconnection.
Step 3 - The reset ¶
While we were going through all this, we had our existential crisis as technologists.
Were we trying to put the cart before the horse? Was education the horse? What is the cart? What is in it? Are the students in the cart or is the educational content in the cart? Well, the metaphor was confusing at best and demoralizing at worst.
What we wanted to do was to create a better learning system. We viewed learning as a series of hills to climb, gradually increasing in difficulty until the learners reach the summit of the mountain of their choice. They can set sight on taller peaks from there.
We wanted to use technology as the cushion to give them a safe landing when they fall. A fall that they can brush aside and try again and again and again. This metaphor suited us. So, we firmly put the the “Tech” in a support role and focused on the “Ed”.
Step 4 - Our own mountain to scale ¶
We did go back to the drawing board, but with all our existing ideas, to figure out how to transform them into physical activities. Activities where kids/people work together or compete against each other using objects that they hold in their hands.
By the end of 2016, our tests were yielding amazing results. With no experience in running a brick and mortar shop, the only thing stopping us was the fear of unknown. We procrastinated on the idea until one day, we saw an advertisement for space big enough for our center with rent that will give us ample runway to fail.
Before we could change our minds, before our fear took control of us, we hustled to get the work done and by mid May, 2017, we had a center that was functional. We got our unofficial first members by mid June. We officially launched our memberships on July 1st, 2017. Now we are 30 members strong and growing.
More on EdTech ¶
Most EdTech companies focus on the tech bit. We don’t blame them. Focusing on the Ed bit is scary. Getting a PoC done for an EdTech company focusing on the Ed:
- Low status (Oh, are you running a play school?)
- Takes huge amounts of cash (Physical objects cost a ton, import duties more than double the cost)
- The workload can kill you (Kids, employees, inquiries, parents and a lot of physical labor)
- Takes huge amounts of time (You cannot
git stash applyto go back to a version of the activity you discarded prematurely)
We are glad that we took the plunge and went big on Ed. The impact that we have had in one year is unimaginable if we had taken any other route.
- Two members in different batches created binary encoding of the English alphabet, discussed binary to decimal conversion, studied those conversions. All out of their own will inspired by our first legacy activity, Signal.
- Two members have created their own extensions to our game rules.
- Inspired by our poetry activity, one member wrote a poem on a bothersome fly.
- Couple of members worked 1.5 hours on an impossible task (caused by an error from another team) seething with anger and frustration. We shared a personal story, applauded them for not giving up and the entire batch gave them a big hand.
- Two “sworn enemies” in one of our batches want to be on the same team now. Our members dance, read books, draw, color, listen to stories, think about poetry, write stories and plays, solve mind bending puzzles, work on tasks attentively for 3 hours, sometimes longer with breaks in between, play games.
- They come back every session wanting to know what is on the table. They come early, they leave late.
- Parents have mentioned their temptation to use “No Puthir today” as a punishment.
Step 5 - Ready for the next peak ¶
We have taken a radical new idea, brought it into existence and gained traction in a conservative and risk averse community, city and country.
Parents have given us a huge two thumbs up with prompt renewals and membership upgrades. Kids have given us more by trying hard to never miss a session. We think Puthir has passed the litmus test.
We are now ready to expand and reach more people and feed back our research and creations into mainstream academia.