Tymen Crevels

NexThought Monday – The Future of ‘Blended Learning’ Apps for the Poor:

Blended learning is an education model in which a student learns via digital technology combined with traditional methods of teaching. Different practitioners have different notions of what constitutes blended learning, but the Clayton Christensen Institute defines it as “a formal education program in which a student learns: (1) at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace; (2) at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home; (3) and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”

Blended learning is growing in popularity and there are a number of reasons why. Math learning system company DreamBox Learning notes the hybrid between online and teacher-led instruction is gaining popularity in part because “school district administrators have been charged with producing students who achieve a higher academic level while keeping costs under control – and they’re looking for an innovative approach.” A similar situation exists in many developing economies like India, where the challenge for educators is maximizing student learning in a cost-effective and innovative way.

In this information age, where almost every person is connected, using technology to teach seems like a logical way ahead. Education technology, interwoven with learning, makes it fun for kids. After all, in their minds, technology, including phones, computers and tablets, is traditionally used for playing games. Harnessing devices that represent fun and using them for education makes students more accepting of learning. In developing countries, a shortage of qualified teachers is an ongoing problem which is solved, in part, when traditional teaching is supported by technology.

An additional reason for the growing popularity of blended learning, according to DreamBox, is that “Educators have begun incorporating online learning and adaptive learning technology into their classrooms not only because of the extra resources that they provide, but also because 21st century students have grown up in a technology-saturated world, and expect to be able to use computers and tablets in the classroom.”

The same dynamic is playing out in schools around the world, many of which are adopting blended learning to personalize learning, increase output and control costs. Many want to create a student-centered learning system, and blended learning seems to be the most promising way to do so. But while educators and thought leaders seem to agree on the benefits of blended learning, the implementation is another ballgame altogether.

An example of blended learning gone wrong is described by Tod Newcombe in his article A Cautionary Tale for Any Government IT Project: LA’s Failed iPad Program. The original goal of the $1.3 billion project which was to widen access to high-quality devices and give every student exposure to these modern tools. But as Newcombe writes in Governing magazine, execution was a technical, as well as fiscal, disaster.

Internet connectivity was spotty at some schools, partly because the district’s facilities chief was not included in the planning process for upgrading school networks to carry the heavy data demands of so many devices connecting to the Internet. Teachers were ill-trained on how to use the iPads and curriculum, and faculty never widely embraced the tablet, according to a Department of Education report. And many students learned how to bypass the security features and just used the iPads to surf the Internet.

Controversy about the usefulness of leveraging technology for education began before the Los Angeles experiment and continues to this day. Some schools have been able to successfully integrate iPads into their classrooms. But it’s not just a matter of giving students the gadgets; their proper implementation makes or breaks the process of learning. In addition, connectivity is a prerequisite for blended learning. “Connectivity facilitates the creation and sharing of open education resources,” explained Tom Vander Ark in his article Connectivity is Critical: 33 Ways Broadband Boosts Learning. Vander Ark talks about the importance of having a bandwidth connection to facilitate digitization of education.

And this is where the difficulty arises for developing countries. They face numerous problems around implementation, making blended learning seem like an impractical, distant model of education. These issues include poor connectivity, unmotivated teachers, intermittent electricity, the relative high cost of Internet and limited access to devices. Hence, successfully implementing blended learning seems to be a feat few players are able to master.

At Zaya Learning Labs, where I am chief financial officer, we’re taking on the challenge of implementing blended learning in the developing world with an eye to avoiding debacles like LA’s iPad program and other issues discussed above. Zaya is one of a small number of successful ed-tech companies in India and emerging markets, that share the goal of catering to the needs of disconnected students – a market that could number in the billions globally.

With about 60 schools and 20,000 students currently using Zaya’s blended learning solution, Zaya is moving ahead progressively to help every child learn, with connectivity no longer an issue. Other companies need connectivity (bandwidth) to reach students, but Zaya doesn’t need connectivity because it has built-in Wi-Fi. Zaya’s ClassCloud is a plug-and-play, portable, classroom-specific wireless device with a learning platform designed to store, access and deploy curriculum and content in classrooms with intermittent connectivity or no connectivity. What makes this unique is its usability in any country or economy while potentially saving a school up to $1,200 annually on bandwidth and costing less than $2 per child/per month. It’s one of the cheapest blended learning solutions globally.

The software installed in the ClassCloud does not just passively provide content, it actively analyses the content’s usage and the resulting student achievement so that educators can ensure content meets the educational needs of individual learners.

One example is the Gurunanak School of Mumbai, a partially government-funded school that faced difficulties designing a curriculum since the students in each class were on varying levels within the same grade. To reduce the achievement gap, we focused on an intensive remediation program, helping students who had fallen behind to catch up with their peers and lengthening classes for students to work on the Zaya platform. The intervention resulted in students who were more engaged, beginning to catch up and, in the process, found learning fun. The lessons ran at the students’ own pace and successful students were rewarded with achievement badges to build engagement. Teachers’ feedback confirmed that none of the students wanted to miss out on days that Zaya’s blended learning was taught.

So, while blended learning as a pedagogical and practical evolution is becoming more popular with educators, the need for dependable technology, by its very nature, is a must. Specifically, the lack of (broadband) connectivity in most of the developing world is a major challenge and threatens to limit access to blended learning for a very large population of students who could benefit from it the most. Innovative solutions could offer the answer until high-speed Internet is available universally.


Tymen Crevels is the Chief Financial Officer at Zaya Learning Labs.


Education, Technology