Acing the entrance exam for India’s top management schools has never come easily. But a Bangalore engineer-turned-teacher-turned-entrepreneur named Byju Raveendran figured out an engaging way to teach that significantly boosts students’ chances. Barely two years ago, he parlayed his approach into BYJU’s The Learning App. While it still helps students prepare for those entrance exams, it’s turned into so much more: giving students from kindergarten through high school across the country the opportunity to access math and science lessons.
Launched a mere two years ago, BYJU’s has grown to become India’s most popular learning app, downloaded by more than 5 million students and boasting 260,000 subscribers, who spend an average of 40 minutes a day on the app. Its success makes complete sense: India consistently ranks low in global education assessments, in part because of a one-size-fits-all teaching approach that’s necessitated by a high teacher-to-student ratio. Through graphics and videos, BYJU’s personalizes every lesson to a student’s pace and style of learning. Students can also use the app to analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and talk to their teachers.
But students aren’t the only ones who’ve taken interest in the app. Recognizing its enormous potential, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan) was among a group of funders who invested $50 million in September 2016, allowing BYJU’s to take on more subjects and reach even more students.
Part of a Digital Revolution
BYJU’s is one of the latest examples of how online coursework — itself around for a couple of decades — is evolving. More far-reaching examples are cropping up in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which provide dramatic new access to digital learning, often for free. The impact of MOOCs is far-reaching: Students in even the most remote parts of developing countries can access learning like never before. They cover virtually every subject, are often created in conjunction with universities and provide an easy “testing ground” before pursuing a full-fledged online degree program. But there’s the catch: MOOCs typically aren’t seen as on par with an online degree.
Once you have that content, why not make it available to the rest of the world?
That, however, is changing. “Digital learning, of which MOOCs are an example, is going to transform education at MIT and elsewhere,” says Dr. Sanjay Sarma, vice president of Open Learning and professor at MIT, where 2.5 million students have accessed more than 100 MOOCs. “It’s more compatible with how the brain works because you can go back and re-watch a video of your professor’s lecture as you want.” But the idea of free access — or an online certificate for a small fee — is what’s making the biggest difference. “Once you have that content, why not make it available to the rest of the world?” Sarma says.
Connecting in New Ways Beyond Digital
Not every development in connected education depends on digital tools, however. Connecting in person through teamwork and collaboration has provided the foundation to what Ulrich Weinberg teaches at the Hasso-Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam in Germany. As professor and director of the School of Design Thinking, he’s become a top advocate for moving away from the individual learning process at all levels of education. “Anyone who has ever learned in a team — in a collaborative environment — knows that this is actually a much more efficient way of learning,” Weinberg says.
The effort is something he describes as moving from the IQ to the “WeQ.” Giving students the opportunity to collaborate, versus compete, with each other helps the learning environment flourish, he says, and it lessens the distinction between school and the workplace, where working as a team tends to be the norm.
In tandem with breaking away from the individual learning process is removing individual incentives — or grades. “This little decision of not giving grades to any individual is one of the most important decisions we’ve made,” Weinberg says. Because students are conditioned to receiving grades, he says, it can take a while to adjust to the fact that they’re not being monitored that way. But it’s worth the change. “When you’re measured and you get a grade, you behave differently and don’t allow yourself to come up with a crazy idea,” Weinberg says. “But with no grades, no individual incentives, students start allowing themselves to do incredible things.”