Tech Over: 5 Lessons Learned

Technology can only solve problems in the education sector once you actually know what those problems are. Quest Alliance’s Executive Director Aakash Sethi writes about how meaningful engagement with end-users has led to Ed-tech innovations which have brought about real changes in the Indian context.


Everyone’s excited about using technology to bring about positive changes in the education sector. So excited, in fact, that all too often you see technology coming before the problem. There is a notion that ‘I want to use technology’, and that in doing that, I’ll definitely solve a problem or two.

At Quest, design thinking has been part of the way we work for a long time. This notion of immersion in a particular issue, experiencing challenges from the point-of-view of the end user, and then using that experience to articulate the problem and structure the solution, is now in our DNA.

This is the approach that has guided the way that we harness technology. We’ve understood the educational ecosystem, and then thought about what challenges we could leverage technology to help solve. Here, I’ll share with you some examples from our work.

1) The Parent-Child Connect

For a child to experience a safe, secure, learning environment, and to be encouraged to learn, the ‘parent-connect’ is paramount. Parents, especially if they have had little or no formal schooling themselves, can have a tendency to underestimate the role they can play in their child’s education.

This is the point at which technology can enter the equation. Mobile phone penetration is increasing year-on-year in rural India – according to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, there were 499 million mobile subscribers in rural India as of June 2017. Therefore, schools can use an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) to trigger a connect with parents on a regular basis, for example through sending them tips on how best to engage with their child at home.

Our research has shown that if parents engage with children, even just at the level of asking them a few basic questions about school on a daily basis, children’s perceptions of their parents significantly improve, as does their socio-emotional engagement and attendance. As part of our Anandshala program, between 2012-15 in the Samastipur district of Bihar, IVRS was used to broadcast messages to parents on the importance of education. 93% of parents who received voice messages on their phones found that they were useful. 

2) Technology & the Teacher

When we design technology-based learning materials directly for students, oftentimes, the role that of the teacher is neglected, or they are simply expected to change their role ‘on demand’, without actually going through any sort of professional development. How can we ask teachers to just ‘see value’ in technology, without showing them what the value feels like?


When you use technology as part of teacher training, facilitators develop their own set of beliefs about the role technology can play in learning, because they have experienced it themselves. The change in the role of a teacher from being “the sage on the stage” to being “the guide on the side” is linked to this value that they see in technology, and allows change to cascade through them, rather than past them.

The ways that technology can integrated be into facilitator training are many and varied, whether through peer connection, self-assessment or classroom analysis. Examples abound. The Digital Life Skills Toolkit enables teachers to understand life skills based on their own experiences, and then use that understanding and experience to teach their learners. Video documentation is used as a means of self-assessment for both trainers and teacher coaches. Trainer Tribe, an online platform which connects trainers from all over the country, is a recent ‘peer to peer’ solution, harnessing the reach of Facebook.

3) Enable Self Learning

One key takeaway from our work has been the need to build in feedback for the learner within any sort of self learning program. It’s not just about showing them content, but getting them to engage, which then triggers understanding. MyQuest, our blended learning program which gives young people access to life, occupational and career development skills, does just that.


We’ve also seen the potential technology has to be a leveller. What we observe from data is that the students whose learning grows the most are those who are the most ‘behind’ in the baseline assessments that we conduct. A recent study of students participating in our Skills to Succeed program found that the ‘weakest’ students (defined as those earning 30th percentile scores or less in our baseline data) achieved the maximum results: a rise by 100% in their endline English scores. The key insight here is that the learners who are the most scared of asking questions in the classroom have the most to gain. They can ask the technology to repeat what they don’t understand again and again with no fear of judgement.

4) Take it Offline

However fast the growth rate of internet penetration in India is, there are still areas with limited or no connectivity. An Internet and Mobile Association of India report published earlier this year suggests that overall internet penetration in India is currently around 31%. That doesn’t have to mean that technology can’t have a meaningful role in those settings.

One solution has been to build low-cost content servers to distribute multimedia content offline. We’ve found that you can take technology offline, but still get analytics and performance data. A lot of this data feeds back to teachers, so that they can understand where there students are and plan differentiated instruction. At a more administrative level, we have a better idea of what’s going on in each centre, so that we can focus training and support accordingly.

5) Engage the Ecosystem

Finally, we’ve realised the immense value of engaging the larger system. That is, the entire ecosystem of learning: from the school coaches, to the administrative block co-ordinators and the district leadership. How can we get all of these players involved at different points, create more motivation, and even educate them about the changes they can drive in their own capacities and context?

Creating an appreciation of what is actually going on at various levels is a start, as is demonstrating how data can be used to drive more transparent decision-making. Presenting this information at different levels leverages behavioural economics in a way that helps to create a positive environment in which everyone can getand dobetter.

Ways that we’ve harnessed technology to open these channels of communication and break down barriers include WhatsApp groups which different parts of the district administration are part of, on which everyone can give comments and feedback, to inviting change leaders to talk about their projects at conferences and forums. Apart from the value change leaders give when sharing their experiences, further value is extracted when recordings or data from these interactions gets taken back to their own communities.

Innovation through Partnership

What we’ve learned is that engaging with the user, and the ecosystem, must always come first. Our deep and continuous engagement with that ecosystem has shown us that blended learning works, and that when driven by community and recognition, technology can be a great leveller. None of this is possible without partnerships at various levels: from co-labs to engage with the practitioner network on thematic issues, to creating champions who take change forward through through a continuous engagement framework. At the end of the day, the innovation is the point at which the learner extracts value and meaning from technology, not technology itself.



Aakash Sethi
Executive Director, Quest Alliance


This blog is adapted from a presentation I gave at the 2017 Frugal Innovation Forum, organised by BRAC.

Author: thelearnerbyquest

Quest Alliance's space for reflection on the education sector

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: