‘Role of Societal Platforms in Education’ at #ItAllAddsUp

‘Role of Societal Platforms in Education’ at #ItAllAddsUp

February 26, 2019 | Education

Rohini’s talk on the role of societal platforms in eduction made at the Akshara Foundation’s event on Maths: #ItAllAddsUp

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00:09 Speaker 1: Coming to an Akshara Foundation function is like coming home.

[kannada language]

00:20 S1: Ashok has given me only 15 minutes to talk about a very big subject, so my timekeeper is going to tell me when my time is up. So, starting now okay, 15 minutes. So, I’m sure…

[kannada language]

00:39 S1: It’s a very important issue, so I hope we can all sort of… I wish there was a chance for introduction, but I hope it can, that same conversation we carry through in the panel later.

00:52 S1: Of course I’ve been at Akshara since its inception up till 2007 and then under Ashok’s leadership, it has gone from strength to strength. And today, all of you are here because Akshara Foundation is not just about itself but it is about the 200 million children in this country that need serious help. ASER 2018 just came out. Many of you might have read about it. We know that very slow progress if at all is happening in the country with the children, and we feel every time we look at ASER, how are we managing to let the children of this country down, all of us who are doing so many things. Why are we not able to fulfill the basic needs of the children to be learning better? There are many determinants of learning and education and I know this room is fully committed to every child learning well. But when you see there are only one-third of children in class five can do basic arithmetic, you really begin to see by the work that all of you are doing today, it all adds up, becomes extremely critical for the country. So please, re-energize yourself and we need to continue. But my topic here today is about societal platforms in education. When you think of education, it is a societal mission.

[kannada language]

02:12 S1: It is not just the responsibility of teachers, the school system, the government, the parent, it is everybody, society’s responsibility to make sure that the young people of this country get a good education, become good citizens and participate fully in this democracy. So we’ve always thought of this work as a societal mission and that samaaj, bazaar, sarkar, all of which elements are good at different things must come together to solve these large complex societal problems, like education, health, water resources, looking after the environment killing, I mean you can think of so many things.

02:52 S1: So if samaaj, if we can all agree, samaaj, bazaar, sarkaar, civil society, markets and state have to work in a continuum to solve large problems like education, then we started to think as a team. How do we make this collaboration easier? How do you reduce the friction between these sectors to collaborate, so that they can give the best of themselves? They have different talents, civil society is extremely good at working from the heart, from passion, working on the grass roots, working with people, innovating all sorts of things, taking a lot of risks, demonstrating how to do good work, government has a mandate and the ability to take things to massive scale.

03:39 S1: Once government decides to do something, the way it can do it, no other entity can and markets are very good again at innovating, at looking at spaces which can be financially, thank you, Financially supported, which can be financially viable and sustainable. We need everybody to work in sync. So one of the questions to us was, how do we reduce the friction for collaboration? And with that, the team that we are now calling the Societal Platform Team, we say we would like that societal platforms are one way to address, not the only way, but one way to address large, complex, socially dynamic, ever changing problems where the solutions seem to be left far behind the changing and rapidly escalating nature of the problem.

04:33 S1: So some of the fundamental things we like to talk about when we as a team talk about societal platforms is how can you get all these three entities to work together using some principles that we believe, what can we do? Not to solve something, because then we ourselves will become the choke point. If Akshara Foundation had said, only Akshara Foundation will solve the problem on math learning, it would have been no where. Because Akshara knows how to reach out to all of you, you all tend together to be more than the sum of your parts. So how can we distribute the ability to solve? How can we restore the agency of everybody in the system to themselves become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem that somebody else has to solve? So how do you structurally answer this question? The other thing that we like to talk about is, I again re-emphasize restoring agency. It’s not about giving somebody something, but igniting their own ability and imagination. So that is a very important pillar for us to think of when we design societal platforms. Then, because for us it’s a value and a principle by itself, and in India it is a complete reality, diversity.

05:51 S1: It’s not like somebody got some fantastic idea, now everybody else has to follow suit and implement that idea. It would never work in a country where every 100 kilometers, the language, the culture can change. Even within a small village you can have so many kinds of communities and cultures. So, we very strongly believe that you do need a unified system, because there are some common goals that we all share, no matter which spectrum of that whole diversity, we are on. So how can you have a unified system, but not a uniform one? How can you allow diversity to play at scale? So that was another fundamental design principle that has been occupying us all for the last three, four years that we’ve been talking about this. And, if we have to do all of this at scale.

06:42 S1: In India, some of us, it’s okay. Even if I work with one child is wonderful, marvelous because that’s what I can do. But the need is for 300 million. Now if that’s the scale, some of us, at least need to be thinking at, because unless every last child is looked after us, worked with. We have not solved the problem. And, the problem keeps on getting more complex. So, if you’re looking, aspiring to solve this at scale with all the principles I kept in mind, restore agency, distribute the ability to solve, unified but not uniform, if you keep all those things in mind, it seem to us and somehow I have someone in the house, who uses technology a little bit, so that might have influenced me too.

07:24 S1: So, Nandan is thinking definitely that, if to do that, we might have to use a technology spine. We are not going to be technology-led but we have to be technology-enabled. So, that using the marvelous new digital technologies that have come together which have allowed all of you to do WhatsApp of all your recipes and show your cute grandchildren’s faces to the world, those same technologies can also help us to do all kind of other social good. How do we converge the best of those technologies to allow that kind of scale and to allow that kind of participation?

08:06 S1: So while we were thinking all this, we started EkStep four years ago and today in pursuit of some of these ideas, how will we increase the opportunity, how will we increase access to learning opportunities for 200 million children, in the next couple of years, we have to reach that target. And after two years, please call me back, have another conference, so, I can tell you how far we have come. We think we’re somewhat poised to get to that number. And I’ll tell you how, just two or three things after 20 years in this field. I think two or three things that make me hopeful. The team has been working very closely with the government of India and with several state governments. Some of the infrastructure that we have built, has resulted as many of you know, the DIKSHA platform, the National Teacher Platform, which now put a lot of power in the hands of teachers to learn from other teachers directly without a hierarchical system to build content, to use their creative abilities, to be in a system which gives them many more abilities than would be possible without such a platform and excuse me.

09:21 S1: I also had a good lunch, so now I need the water. So, right now there are millions of teachers already on this platform and eventually we hope that some 15 million teachers will be on the DIKSHA platform and learning from each other in a live, dynamic sort of way. On the other hand, the team has worked with several governments to put in QR codes in textbooks. How many of you have seen any of that? So, some of you have seen that, I should have thought of bringing one. We have enough of them? So…

[kannada language]

10:02 S1: What the governments have done by putting the QR code in the textbooks? Two billion textbooks get created every year in this country, massive scale. If there is nothing else that reaches every Indian home, a textbook, 100% will find it’s way into an Indian home. So, think of this, we have a textbook as an entry point, right inside the family, right inside the home. Unfortunately, a physical thing can only be static. But the minute you put the QR code you are able to bridge between the physical and digital world. Even if I wrote the textbook chapter before the latest universes were discovered or we found out how much light has come into the universe since time began. I can’t change the textbook, but if there’s a QR code and if I can scan that. That may tell me just about the planets. But I will also find out what I read in the newspaper today, if the National Teachers Platform is working as it should, if the teachers are engaged in providing the information to the children, it allows children immediate access to evolving knowledge. Again, this intermediated from any hierarchical structures. Directly a child can access this once content is put. So I think between these two things, between the QR codes and the National Teachers Platform, all of us in civil society, all of us in government, even us, even market players can play a good role to support education though these twin pillars.

11:40 S1: So in education, when you look at it, we have teachability, learn-ability and accountability. Any of the work you do it’ll fall into one of these three stools. You want to improve the ability of students to learn, which is learn-ability, you want to improve the ability of teachers or parents or whoever is tutoring the child, you have to improve the ability to teach, but all of this has to be in a visible framework of accountability. How do we know? How will we know that the learners are learning and the teachers are teaching better? So you need the accountability framework.

12:19 S1: I believe that we now have through societal platform thinking, a fairly evolved understanding of how to create those pillars, and I think continued involvement of civil society actors, the samaaj sector is going to be incredibly important to make that happen. So really that is what I wanted to say in a nutshell because if I go very deeply into the concept… So now we have taken the idea of societal platform into other sectors like health, water, financial inclusion. But I really believe that in education, it is likely to be the most successful precisely because of what civil society and government have done for the last 70 years in this country, work so hard to create an education structure, right down to the last mile, right down to the last Indian home.

13:13 S1: So when we already have that, when we have millions of teachers who are engaged with children everyday, when we have thousands and thousands of very good and sincere civil society organizations working directly with children, and when we have these emerging technologies that can be pulled in to support the work of government and civil society, I think in education we have the best chance in the next five years, to crack some of the problems that have plagued us for so long. I think time comes when a kind of momentum builds up, and then you have a tipping point and suddenly things change.

13:49 S1: And they don’t change in a big way overnight, usually when you look back its one change at a time that happens and then suddenly the pot is full, when you say, you don’t know which exactly which mug when you put into the pot actually fills the pot. I sincerely believe we are at that point where the tipping point, where we will see in the next five years, all of us together, making that stride and by… This was ASER’s 14th. 14th? Okay Let’s all say to ourselves when ASER 15 comes out, at least in math, all of us together will ensure that it will not be one third who don’t know, but at least one third who are left behind. Here it says only one third know, but at least lets make that only one third left to go. I think we should aim to do that, I think some of the principles I talked about are very important, I think many of you if you unpack the work you do, you will find that you’re trying exactly to achieve those. Distribute the ability to solve, restore the agency of all actors in the system, don’t think that there’s one size that fits all, make it unified but not uniform, your approach and don’t be technophobic. Embrace good technologies to amplify the good work that you do. So thank you all for listening to me. How much time do I have left out of my 15 minutes? 12 seconds. But okay, if there’s anybody… Really knows his math too well. So that’s a problem, okay.

15:27 S1: But if anybody has a question about what I said, I will ask for extra time using my influence with Ashok Khamat. So [chuckle] does anybody want to ask me something which I was not able to make clear? One or two very quick questions? Please. Yeah.

15:52 S1: Okay thank you. Yes that’s good. So for example what we are developing some of the tools and toolkits that we’re developing on the platform allows accountability to be sort of part of what you do. So for example today, you can have attestation, so you can have registries, so you know how many teachers are in the system and then you can add features that are collectively decided upon, of what needs to be self-reported by the teachers and that really changes the game. Or you can have attestations certificates. Right now we send teachers from the time I remember, okay it might have changed. 20 days a year, teachers are sent for training, and you don’t know who got trained, how much they got trained, how much they deployed in class, we don’t have the greatest indicators. You can use technology not only to attest what kind of training has happened, but also to see how it is being deployed.

16:50 S1: There are many technologies that will allow you to track while respecting your privacy, and that is just one nature of it, but there are many other things that my tech team could have talked to you about. I think technology enables better accountability. Anybody else? Do you all think we’re progressing on learning how to teach maths? How many people believe that? I hope everybody. Don’t hesitate, I believe it. How many people think that we’d be… Yeah please go ahead.

17:34 S1: No she raised her hand because she’s confident that we’re improving, so that’s good. No, I really think so, I think we have all learned so much just in this last decade and the commitment is there. You know you realize, and this is the last think I will say, you realize that actually, its only a 15 year problem. It just keep our noses to the grindstone the demographics of India is changing. So after 15 years actually, we’ll have far fewer children in the school system. They will have gone. Now me must make sure that those who are moving up, have all our attention, and focus right now so that the rest of their lives are better. But also keep in mind that the size of our problem is going to reduce just in th next 10 to 15 years. So on that happy note…

[kannada language]

18:22 S1: And thank you for listening to me. All the very best in your journey.



Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

Are we suffering from a lack of imagination?

December 18, 2018 | Philanthropy

The pace at which social problems are outpacing our solutions underscores the need for bold philanthropy, audacious goals and capable, committed leadership in social sector organisations, says Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam and co-founder of EkStep.


How do you think Indian philanthropy has evolved over the years?  How have the approaches and discussions around giving developed?

I think Indian philanthropy is at an exciting stage; it is continually evolving. One of the most interesting things is that the ecosystem of philanthropy is evolving too, along with philanthropy itself and the idea of giving. Like yourself [India Leaders for Social Sector], there are many ecosystem players that are coming up, looking at leadership in the sector, matchmaking between donors and recipients, building the capacities of the sector, looking at bringing new issues to the  fore,  and so many other things [such as] auditing the sector. And, of course, with so much more wealth creation happening in the country, the spotlight is on what that wealth is doing for the country – I think we are seeing many interesting developments in Indian philanthropy

Is that increased philanthropic wealth doing enough?

No, I think we need the philanthropic muscle in India to be exercised much more. There are some constraints, though, as to why that’s not happening as much as we would like to see.

One factor is the trust deficit. Although the wealthy want to give, there is a lot of philanthropic capital all dressed up and with nowhere to go, largely because of this trust deficit.  How do you give, who do you give to, how do you get impact? You still don’t feel very sure, because of which many of us just land up creating our own organisations, trying to create the change ourselves.

I believe that a healthier thing is when the donors – I am speaking about the super wealthy—find enough channels to give through so that there is no burden of doing things themselves: because we do need a thriving civil society in a democracy. Civil society actors come from passion, from vision, from innovation, from being tied to their communities and from having deep and great context. Having a thriving civil society in a trustworthy, trusting relationship, with donors is something I consider ideal in a democracy. I think we are a little far away from that.

What opportunities must Indian philanthropy invest in to make a larger, lasting impact?

Building the capacities of the system is important. Unless the pipeline opens up to receive funds, you will not see philanthropy grow.  I talked about trust before – that’s important too. But also models of how things are really working in, say, education, health, environment, climate change, livelihoods… there are a hundred things where philanthropy should invest in, including the arts and culture. We need museums, we need performance-based culture to be supported, we need new institutions that allow people to understand the world around them. Different people are working in these areas based on their passion.

But I also think that when we talk of the disparities in India and how far behind some people are left, we have no choice but to go back to talking about the human rights framework. Some donors feel uncomfortable about this because of various things they don’t quite understand: does that mean hyper activism, does that mean getting into trouble with the state?

No matter what you call it, it is about caring about the 300 million people in this country who are our fellow citizens, who need to be supported, who need help across the board. How can Indian philanthropists, those who want to change the world for the better, start thinking a little innovatively to work with this segment?

We need to look into the future, for what’s coming at us, whether it is livelihoods, the future of work  or climate change—that’s where philanthropic capital should want to step in because they can afford to take risks, they can afford to do the things that the government cannot afford to do, things that civil society doesn’t yet have the support to imagine doing. This is the kind of challenge and opportunity for the Indian philanthropic sector.

Do you believe talent can be a limiting factor as organisations in the social sector aim for scale and sustainability?

With 1.3 billion people, we shouldn’t have to talk about the lack of talent. I think the talent is there, the grooming of the talent needs to be taken very seriously. In this sector, we must not forget to ask if there is enough commitment: if we can draw people’s commitment, people’s passion, people’s real need for their lives to have meaning, then I don’t think talent or human resources is a problem.

Having said that, because of the way the sector is growing, we really need different kinds of skills for the specific things that we need to do. I think people are recognising it. People like ILSSare coming into the sector to create the necessary talent, but we have some years to go, no doubt about it.

What can civil society organisations do to develop their leadership pipeline? How can funders help this effort?

I think we have a succession crisis in the sector right now. Many of the organisations came out of some cataclysmic events in the sixties and the seventies that brought out this amazing moral leadership in this country, which has for the last 30-40 years built a very solid civil society foundation. We are seeing succession issues in many of these organisations: after that one dynamic founder is gone, then what? We do have a leadership crisis in the sector. What ILSS and some others are doing to create the next generation of leaders is very important.

Inside organisations people really grapple with creating leadership. So, if CSR could support short courses for organisations to build their leadership, it could be very useful. Funders need to support much more institutional capacity and much more sector capacity. Leadership doesn’t come out of a vacuum and if funders could begin to think like this, it would really help.

Given the current context, what skill sets would you like to see in the social sector?

Of late I’ve been thinking, is there a lack of imagination, are we suffering from a lack of imagination? I mean, look at how the problems are outpacing the solutions. I’m not criticising; I see myself as a part of the sector so, if anything, this is a reflection rather than a criticism.

When Gandhiji just picked up a fistful of salt, what was he launching? When Vinobaji was talking about bhoodan, what was hisimagination? It was not for one district, it was not even for one nation, it was for all of humanity. When Jayaparakashji started the Sampoorna Krantiand Sarvodaya, they were talking about transforming humanity itself. Have we lost some of this spirit? How do we spark our imagination to think much bigger?

The second thing is that, while we unleash our imagination, we should also be putting our noses to the grindstone to be much more rigorous in finding out what really works and how to build systematic structures around it. That is another skill we need to build.  One more thing I would like to add is about sharing and collaboration: so, for example, if you are working in education, being curious to know what someone is working on somewhere else and being able to reach out for that.

How can the talent in corporate India engage more deeply with the social sector?

It would be great if corporate professionals, who’ve made a success of their lives, could see the kind of problems that are emerging and how they can apply their skills to solve some of those. It would be great if they start to reflect on how they would like to see the world become better and then agree to spend some of their personal time understanding that issue — because they are not just professionals, consumers, or subjects of the state; they are citizens first.

And to be a citizen means to engage with other people and to take responsibility for creating a better society because today we are more interconnected than ever. So, when we get out of our offices and cabins, how can we reconnect with all the other things that really make our lives meaningful beyond our jobs? There are so many opportunities now; there are so many young people with amazing ideas, who want to engage corporate professionals. Go and find out who’s nearest to you and I promise it will make your life richer.

What is the one cause that is closest to your heart?

The common thread in all my work is around giving people a sense of their own involvement in resolving whatever the situation may be. Whether I work in water or environment or in issues of young males in this county or the climate collaborative, that’s at the core: how do we distribute the ability to solve, how do we help people collaborate with each other? No amount of pushing solutions down the pipeline can create anything sustainable. So how do we build the strength of the samajsector? That’s the underlying issue that I care about.

A new area I am working on are the 250 million young males in this country – from puberty to the age at which they are supposed to be settled with jobs and families, but are not–and the frustration, the restlessness, the helplessness, the fear, the insecurity associated with being forced into patriarchal identities without even having thought much about it, without having role models or family connections sometimes.

How little we have done for that cohort in this country! Can we devise programmes that allow for more positive modelling for these young men so that they can be the best they want to be? This is something I have been engaged with, primarily to empower the young males themselves, but also because if we don’t focus more on them, we are never going to achieve our women’s empowerment goal. Empowering women is absolutely necessary, but to send an empowered woman into a disempowered situation gives her very bad choices.

The most ambitious thing I’ve done so far is in the context of societal platforms thinking. Societal problems are so complex that they require samaj, sarkaarand bazaarto work together; but it’s very difficult for them to work together in a really effective way. So, what can we do to reduce the friction and enable these sectors to collaborate? Can we create a technology backbone? How can we keep unpacking the commonalities across these sectors so that contextual solutions can be built on top of them? How can we build something that is unifiedbut not uniform, so that we can allow diversity to scale? How can we allow real collaboration and co-creation, and at the same time create an engine that will offer all the data when it is needed and also allow people to learn? It’s a big play; it may work, or it may not work, but we’re very excited and enthused about it.

What role do you see for technology in the civil society space?

I’ve begun to realise that if you want to respond to problems at the scale and the urgency at which they are spreading, civil society really needs to rethink its relationship with technology. I risk saying that when we see emergent backlash against technology for various good reasons. When you’re going to be technology-led you’re going to have problems, if you’re technology-enabled, you’re going to have different opportunities.

A very crucial thing I’ve learned is that when the young people of this country are going to be digital citizens, civil society has no choice but to be digital. Even to be able to respond to the abuse of technology, it has to learn to act in technology domains. At Arghyam we are trying to see how we can be an infrastructure provider instead of just a donor.

A digital civil society, where you offer checks and balances on a digital age, is something we need to strengthen in India.







Sea Change – Nandan Nilekani, Rohini Nilekani

Sea Change – Nandan Nilekani, Rohini Nilekani

August 22, 2018 | Others

To unbundle the thinking and provide diverse perspectives on the need for new ways of catalysing scaled, speedy and sustainable societal change, we are happy to share a 3 episode podcast series titled Sea Change; co-produced by Societal Platform and Vakku. This is a show about societal change in the digital age, and how to make a bigger, faster and more inclusive impact in the world we live in.

In this “First Episode” of Sea Change “Another way of seeing” (featuring Nandan Nilekani, Rohini Nilekani, Robert Palacios from World Bank, Ankur Vora from Gates Foundation, Lalitesh Katragadda, Sanjay Purohit and Pramod Varma), we speak to a group of people who set audacious goals, like transforming how children learn, how people access capital, or healthcare – but they don’t believe in focussing only on solutions.