Ashish Jhalani, Global CMO & Managing Director, Square Panda India

Ashish Jhalani’s 24+ years of experience across multiple disciplines serve him well, as Square Panda’s Global CMO & Square Panda India’s Managing Director. He saw the chance to move from e-commerce to education as a major opportunity to positively affect the lives of children and bring education to their fingertips. Working for a company with a global presence (Square Panda is currently in the US, China, and India), Mr. Jhalani leads the India operations, while shuttling (before lockdown) between New York, Beijing, and Mumbai. In a conversation with Higher Education Digest, Mr Jhalani talks about literacy and challenges confronting children in India, innovative teaching practices of Square Panda, and much more.

 

What are the literacy and challenges confronting children, their families, and schools in India? How can technology solve these challenges?

For too long, learning by rote has passed for education in India. We are looking to reshape this system with our foundational learning programs.

In India, each stakeholder in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) ecosystem faces a different set of challenges.

  • Educators have to deal with ‘multi-level’ and ‘multi-age’ classrooms, a poor student-to-teacher ratio, different learning requirements for each child, and a dearth of resources.
  • The Government is constantly concerned about educator training. We see high passing rates in teacher eligibility examinations, but educators remain less-equipped education, which doesn’t provide them any new-age skills. because of gaps in the systems, curricula, and training methods used in teacher education.
  • Parents have to work around a multitude of challenges, such as socio-economic and gender diversity issues.
  • Children themselves have to vie for attention against a one-size-fits-all teaching approach, along with a lack of access to more inclusive educational tools.

The National Education Policy 2020 acknowledges these challenges, and has made it a national mission to ensure that every student must achieve foundational literacy and numeracy by 2025. We can solve these problems by focussing on-

  • Providing equitable access to early education
  • New-age foundational teaching-learning methods and technology
  • Continuous training & professional development for teachers
  • Equipping teachers and Anganwadi workers with a strong foundation for teaching and digital knowledge.

As a pro-establishment organization, Square Panda India is actively engaged in solving issues across the early learning spectrum as a partner to state governments and the central government.

Tell us a bit about the innovative teaching practices of Square Panda. How do you support children with individual differences?

Square Panda India focuses on impactful, innovative learning. Our early learning initiative, ‘Aarambh’, aims to develop the ECCE ecosystem in every state. This includes the Anganwadi workers, ECCE educators, and children. Through this initiative, Square Panda India works closely with government schools, communities and organisations across the grassroot levels, to provide NEP 2020-focused foundational learning and educator empowerment programs. Aarambh imparts future-ready skills to children, pre-primary & primary educators, and Anganwadi workers, enabling and empowering them to effectively use modern and updated tools that are globally recognized and practiced.

The programs under Aarambh are as follows:

Anganwadi Workers Upskilling Program: The goal is to empower Anganwadi workers with holistic knowledge, provide nourishment to the child in their care, both for the body and mind, and to help Anganwadi teachers unleash their potential to help in the development and education of children.

Empowerment and Enrichment Program for ECCE Educators: The purpose of this program is to empower educators to build holistic knowledge and transform the way they teach. It helps in capacity building of educators on ECCE and its impact on learning outcomes for children. In addition, it helps to empower them to use technology for teaching and learning, and improve English proficiency.

Foundational Learning Program: Literacy and Numeracy for children – Through this program, Square Panda India aims to improve overall learning outcomes in India and build an effective and inclusive education system. The objective is to build foundational learning in English literacy and numeracy, i.e., children’s ability to read with meaning and do basic math calculations. What stands out is that Square panda’s  adaptive platform and personalised journey creates a  learner profile based on every child’s unique needs. The system assesses the progress of each child individually and  recommends the next lesson plan or reinforcement activity. In this way,Square panda assists the early educators to recognise and address children with varying levels of preparation and grasp.

In India, how seriously are students going to be set back by not having formal instruction? What are the efforts of Square Panda to control the damage?

The NEP 2020 recognizes that India is in a learning crisis. Various governmental and non-governmental surveys show a large proportion of students currently in elementary school – estimated to be over 5 crore in number – have not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, i.e., the ability to read and comprehend basic text, and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction with Indian numerals respectively.

This figure has bigger implications when the 2018 ASER report is taken into account; 65 percent Class V children in private schools in rural India could read a Class II level text, while only 44 percent of children in schools, coupled with the inequality of access as per geographic locations, can government schools to do so. The lack of formal education adversely impacts the future of these young learners.

We have been running programs to teach the teachers, during the lockdown and bridge this gap.

  • To complement teachers’ instructions during the school closures, we introduced a ‘school-to-home’ program. This served as a classroom aid, helping children get the best learning opportunities even when physically distant.
  • To keep engagement and training high during the lockdown, we empowered early educators with robust and innovative online seminars and courses. For a greater impact, we expanded our vision to include various training programs targeted towards developing Anganwadi workers and ECCE educators across India.
  • We have trained thousands of educators and are aiming to impact 5 lakh educators as a part of our programs. We are partnering with multiple schools to deliver our EdTech solutions via tablets/phones.
What are some of the most innovative technologies in EdTech right now? What are the critical trends of e-learning to follow in 2021?

Technology has played a transformational role in the education sector on a large scale, and I believe it will continue to do so. It has been both an equalizer and an enabler. UNESCO estimates that 1.26 billion children worldwide have seen their education impacted by the pandemic. About a quarter of these, or a little more than 320 million children, are from India alone.

At Square Panda India, we mix myriad styles of learning – such as visual, experiential, gamified, and activity based learning – to deliver improved learning outcomes for early learners. EdTech will see a greater emphasis on the science of learning and content, such as

  • Increased data tracking and analysis
  • The continued rise of AI and ML
  • Increased uptake of personalised, adaptive learning
  • Gamification for better engagement
  • Heightened usage of video-based content
  • Focus on making online learning more interactive and engaging
What are the opportunities Square Panda sees in the Indian education market? Also, what are the challenges for you to become a significant player here?

Currently, India has 240 million children under the age of 8, with 7.4 million in Pre-Primary and Primary within Government Schools & Anganwadis. These children can benefit greatly from our foundation in executing our mission of supporting the Government to build a new India, learning program & educator empowerment programs. We are working tirelessly in executing our mission of supporting the Government to build a new India, grassroots-up, where every child has acquired foundational skills.

Moreover, the NCERT has been given the responsibility of shaping the national curriculum and pedagogical framework for ECCE. This ushers anganwadis into the mainstream education discussion. It is private education players, and to start collaborating towards nation building. imperative  that we recognise the ripe synergies between government and From a student perspective, the opportunity lies in nudging the child’s curiosity and engaging all of their senses. In terms of challenges, the biggest would be to imbibe technology and understand its full use; this is equally crucial for educators and learners.

What would be the future of the EdTech market from now? What is some advice that you have for startups that are emerging in the EdTech space?

The government of India has recognized the need to digitize education; it is aiding R&D efforts to enhance e-learning opportunities, covering content development, teacher training, and related projects.

We believe the future is now; it has already begun, and we are seeing the results of our efforts. Every startup that takes on this task of impacting education through EdTech must first innovate, and then test their offerings on the ground to see best results.

What is your advice to parents and teachers in the era of online learning?

Parental awareness and engagement in early childhood development and learning can strengthen the experiences from the Anganwadi centres, pre-primary schools, and primary schools. Taking an interest in your child’s early education and developing an understanding of their curriculum defines your child’s future success.

In this online era, I would advise parents that curriculums are paramount to building a network of supportive behaviour that working with digital tools. Work with reputed companies, monitor and supervise to learn about online safety themselves, then do their due diligence with respect to online interactions.

Teachers have to constantly upgrade themselves to stay relevant. They have to find new ways to foster open communication, which encourages children to engage with them digitally.

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