mGuru: A K-5 learning app for India’s under-served students

Posted by Menaka Raman on June 20, 2017

From Archimedes to Newton, from inventors to entrepreneurs, that fleeting flash of inspiration is what generates great ideas,makes humans progress, keeps the world moving forward. For Adam Korakhiwala, his ‘a-ha’ moment came in the form of a grim statistic in the 2014 Annual Status of Education (ASER) report.

ONLY 1 in 4 Std. 5 students can only read basic English sentences.

At the time, Adam was a student of Public Policy with a minor in Computer Science at Stanford University. “I read the report as a Public Policy student, but when I started thinking about how I could be a part of the solution to a problem like this, my background in Computer Science kicked in” shares Adam, founder of mGuru, a Mumbai-based edtech startup, aimed at the K-12 sector of students in urban, peri-urban and rural India.

I remember thinking how affordable smartphones were becoming and reaching so many households and people in India, and that very soon, all families would have the world’s collective knowledge in their pockets. That thought was the starting point for the idea that is now mGuru.”

A fundamental desire to bring great educational technology to any child, anywhere.

Armed with his degree, Adam returned to India with the idea to use mobile technology to help improve literacy and numeracy skills of children. “The first thing I did was to spend time in classrooms as a silent observer to study teacher interactions and student responses. I wanted to understand how different stakeholders in schools felt about education, so I extensively interviewed students, teachers and parents and NGO leaders to get as holistic a view as possible.”

After spending months at the Educo-run BMC Sai Baba Path School, Mumbai and classrooms in Akanksha and Teach for India schools, Adam’s seed of an idea began to germinate. He put together a team using ‘hustle and passion’ by posting on LinkedIn and techie job boards.  

mGuru: Helping put learning in the child’s hands

mGuru is a mobile learning app for K-5 students, focusing on English and Math. The apps provide an interactive learning journey for children, with the explicit aim of accelerating learning outcomes in an engaging way. The vision of mGuru is to package the best learning practices and research into a platform for the masses, so that any child can have the tools to gain basic literacy and numeracy skills. “We aim to significantly increase learning outcomes at scale, and we hope to build a platform that delivers that.” avers Adam.

While smartphone penetration is on the upswing across India, the mGuru team is cognisant of other infrastructural issues related to internet connectivity that much of the country still faces.

“The apps function largely without internet and are designed to work as well on low-end smartphones as they do on high-end devices.”

Once the initial prototype of the application was ready the team tested it with 100 3rd and 4th standard public school students, in Mumbai. “Our team would go in every week to see how children were reacting to the app, what they liked, what they ignored… and then every week we would go back and incorporate those learnings into the app” remembers Adam. After multiple rounds of tinkering, and a complete redesign to be more “pedagogically sound and engaging for kids” the mGuru app was officially released in August, 2016.

Learn while you play

mGuru’s English app is particularly successful with children as it gamifies the learning process. Within mGuru English, there is a reward system in the form of mangoes. By completing various activities, Manu the monkey collects mangoes which the child can then use as currency to purchase stories to read available on the app. All these stories are from StoryWeaver, an online digital repository of multilingual children’s stories from Pratham Books.

“I first read about StoryWeaver when the platform was launched.  At the time, we were looking for stories to include in the English app that were fun and engaging for children to read, along with being culturally relevant to them. StoryWeaver offers all this, and the biggest bonus is that since the stories are openly licensed and in open formats, we can use them for free, and in different ways on the app with subtitles and audio elements that we have built in-house.”

The stories have been immensely popular with the students, as TFI fellow Vishal DB noticed:

“The app keeps students across all reading levels, engaged. A combination of the app being child friendly, the interesting content and the novelty of the tabs ensure that the students are hooked.”

While the stories on the apps are in English, it also has a button, which the child can touch for the story to be translated to another language they are more fluent in. Currently, mGuru English teaches English via Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, and Hindi. However, they plan to expand this to integrate more major Indian languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Urdu. The stories offered are regularly updated so that children always have something new to read and enjoy.  

“The stories from StoryWeaver have already been read 45,000 times who have done over 185,000 activities!” Adam shares enthusiastically.

mGuru at the PTA

mGuru has partnered with NGOs such as Teach for India, Akanksha, and Yuva Unstoppable and  is currently used by 17,000 students all over India, and contains 185,000 activities. Impact is measured by looking at various statistics such as the time spent on the app, how often students return to the app, the number of stories read, and improvements in the scores of students.

“During our research phase, we learned that almost all the students in the schools we visited went for some form of ‘tutions’ after school, which showed that parents were invested in improving their child’s learning. If parents were willing to pay anywhere between Rs.300-600 for tuition, then we felt they might be willing to pay an affordable Rs. 30 per month for our app. We reach out to parents to tell them about and help download the app at school PTAs. So far we have had a very positive response from them.” shares Adam. A sentiment echoed by this parent at Sai Baba Path Public School, Mumbai.

“सर पिछले दो दिन से मेरे दोनो बच्चे ऐप को छोड ही नही रहे है । बाकी गेम खेलना तो उन्होनें बन्द ही कर दिया है बडी बात ये है के वे हमारे बिना ही सब इस्तेमाल करना सीख गये है. हम से ज्यादा मोबाइल के बारे मे उन्हें पता है।”

mGuru is also experimenting with other novel ways getting their app into the hands of more children. Starting next month, they are tying up with a chain of bakeries in Kolkata, where each bakery will also be an mGuru distribution centre. “Every time someone shops at the bakery,they'll get an offer of three weeks free access to mGuru English app. We’ll have someone there to help them download the app and do a demo if needed. If this pilot works, we will look at ways to replicate this in other geographies.” Adam reports.

Setting their sights high

The team is excited about future plans which include adding a math component  to the app, adding more languages  and more diverse content  in the form of videos and diverse activities.

“Everyone on the team has a fundamental passion and desire to bring great educational technology to any child, anywhere.” shares Adam.  

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