And how much youth was buried uselessly within these walls, how much great strength perished here for nothing! I must say it all: these people are extraordinary people. They are perhaps the most gifted, the strongest of all our people. But their mighty strength perishes for nothing, perishes abnormally, unlawfully, irretrievably. And who is to blame?
–Dostoevsky, “The House of the Dead.”
When we began bootstrapping our startup Riffiti more than a year ago, one thing I knew for certain: the team we put together is so solid that there is no doubt we will make a compelling difference.
That continues to be a shining fact. We needed to knock that question of team composition and dynamics out of the park, because the stakes were high and the challenge facing us was significant–it still is, and we did knock it out of the park.
We knew that to realize the vision that possessed us, we have to address this problem: how to massively scale learning in Indian market?
But before that question, we asked ourselves what is the purpose of learning and when can we say that a person is truly on a learning path that benefits her career and the others in the society?
We all know the numbers–nearly 70% of Indian population is under-35; and a full 50% of us are under-25. But once we go past the numbers and take a closer look at millions of these youth, an astonishing world reveals itself.
So we put three distinct social phenomena, as they are occurring everyday in our Indian society, next to each other and tried to make a sense of what’s going on.
First. When we read in our newspapers of men in our society beating, raping and killing women; and see our men and women abusing children, discriminate rampantly based on caste, and commit indiscriminate violence, where do we think these perpetrators come from?
Of course they emerge out of these very same millions of youth, out of the very same 70%-under-35-and-50%-under-25 numbers. Only they’ve become desolate; shed their dreams of even a half-way decent city life; fell out of the demographic with English-speaking skills, and rapidly sunk into the underbelly of our society and lay buried within those walls.
Second, we know the research findings:
—“Nearly half of grade four students in government schools in India cannot answer the following question correctly: 70 -43=? They are meant to be able to do them in grade two. When it comes to reading and languages, Indian students aren’t any better either. By class 7th, more than a quarter of students are unable to read texts that class 2nd students are meant to be proficient in.”
Third. Our Indian education system, including many startups in edtech space, are geared to help a student to pass an exam. Sure, acing an IIT entrance exam will shift a student’s prospects immensely, but what they teach in our schools and the experience needed for real-world employability are increasingly moving far apart. See this: “93% of India’s B-school graduates are useless”
As I show in a conceptual picture below of what I mean, unless and until a learner steps into the “social learning zone,” this learner is not going to be employable. I think plenty of you agree with me that even if one doesn’t have many years of schooling, if you have a high degree of social skills, your employability can be pretty good.
So we need a market-worthy solution that puts the learner in the social learning zone, is easily accessible to everyone, is massively scalable, and enhances the employability of the learner.
How exactly how such a solution will look like? More to the point, what is this social learning zone?
Social Learning Zone
By social learning, we mean the following:
- An approach to learning that only emphasizes learning from real-life experience of the others. That means if you can Google it, don’t bother with Riffiti. Our emphasis is not on searchable knowledge, the sort you get from chicken-scratch internet research, but on the real-life experience that emanates directly from a real human being’s perspective.
- From multiple perspectives. After 20+ years of working in various high tech companies in Silicon Valley, I no longer want to learn from just one person. I want to see and hear how 5, 10 or 50 people understand and interpret the same concept–and I want my understanding to be a part of that larger diversity of understandings. That is the motivation which drove this aspect.
- Make it questions-based. This is vital because the social skills that enhance a learner’s employability come in the form of questions like these:
- how to distinguish between one thing and the other,
- how to ask a well-formulated question,
- how to decide what comes first,
- how to develop a skill of using apt analogies to explain something clearly,
- how to speak clearly in our own words and get to the point within under a minute,
- how to listen without feeling defensive,
- how to appreciate the value of diversity,
- how to know when your prior knowledge is hindering your current learning–coloring it with prejudice, and plenty more questions such as these.
Do any of us believe that our current school and university curriculum teach courses that answer questions like these? I, for one, don’t think so.
And finally, make it into a mobile video app to make it accessible to learners. We know the mobile internet connections aren’t exactly top-notch in India, but that’s the problem that’ll resolve itself over coming months and years.
Having understood the nature of the problem and solution in this way, we arrived at a model that not only turns the traditional learning on its head, but is a massively scalable business, is designed inherently for learning outcomes, and solves the problem of access to learning elegantly. See below picture showing the comparison of traditional and online MOOC-style learning (top) with Riffiti learning (bottom).
A few final words. I’ve come to believe that the traditional learning model, where a teacher issues hour-long monolog to hundreds of thousands of students on the internet, is broken. It is time to replace it with social learning where multiple people are providing their real-life experience-driven perspectives on the same concept.
Our world is full of people with tremendously valuable real-life experience, but they don’t teach because either they don’t have a teaching credential, or they don’t have time, or they don’t think they can teach. We can change that, by giving them an easy-to-use platform and watch learning explode. I hope you will join us in this glorious experiment. Please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.