This post is part of our new Future of Education series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with Yogi Kulkarni, CTO at IMAX Program.
1. What’s the history of IMAX Program? Where and how did you begin?
YK: IMAX Program has gone through 4 major phases of evolution since starting in 2009:
Phase 1 – Impact-Evaluation-as-a-service (2009 – 2013):
The company started off working with organizations like Sesame Street, American India Foundation etc., who were sponsoring learning improvement programs in India. Our co-founders, Naveen and Varun, spent these years working at the grassroots-level across India evaluating the impact of such programs. The key insight they had during this time was that the feedback loop in the classroom was fundamentally broken.
Examinations, which were supposed to serve the purpose of providing actionable feedback, had instead become markers for syllabus completion. The data that was being captured in the examination was being discarded and not being used to subsequently improve student learning. There was also a lot of focus on rote learning. In many schools, before the exam, teachers would share with students a set of “practice questions” from which the actual exam questions would be selected. This practice became common enough that parents would often remind teachers to share the list of “practice questions” for an exam. Consequently, students would do reasonably well by memorizing answers, but their conceptual understanding was very weak.
Phase 2 – Examinations-as-a-Service (2014 – 2015):
To address this problem, the company decided to offer Examinations-as-a-Service called XAMCHECK in 2014, which would ensure that question papers were set without bias since they were created by a third-party. We also “closed-the-loop” by providing detailed feedback reports and personalized remedial worksheets (in print) for each student. We worked with 15 schools in 2014. While the schools liked it, the overall sales velocity was low given that it was a new idea and involved a lot of concept-based selling.
Phase 3 – Curriculum-as-a-Service (2016 – 2017):
To address this, we pivoted to becoming a Curriculum-as-a-Service and called it IMAX Program. This offering resonated strongly with schools because it replaced an existing expense (of textbooks) for parents but delivered a lot more value at the same price.
IMAX started offering a complete curriculum product, which included:
- Textbooks – with clear and consistent content based on Bloom's Taxonomy (aligned to government specifications)
- Teacher Manuals with pre-packaged Year Plan and Lesson Plans
- Teacher training to help teachers use the product well, and conduct remedial sessions effectively
- Examinations and feedback reports
- Personalized remedial worksheets (in print) based on gaps and strengths
Along the way, we also set up a supply chain, including 25 “last-mile fulfillment centers” and a complete software-based technology stack to manage the production and delivery of examinations to schools in these regions. With this, IMAX Program was able to grow to 60+ schools in 2015, then 200+ schools in 2016 and 750+ schools in 2017. The brand spread operations to 5 states in Southern India – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. The population of these five states is equivalent to Mexico, Italy, Myanmar, Poland, and Thailand respectively.
Phase 4 – Central-Academic-Team-as-a-Service (2017 onwards):
One of the trends in the Indian education system has been the rapid growth of “Chain Schools”, which have many branches, systematic internal processes, and most importantly an in-house central academic team which takes decisions related to curriculum and examinations to ensure quality and consistency.
As our product offering evolved, we realized that we were increasingly playing this role of a Central Academic Team for schools we worked with.
Continuing this journey, this year we launched a teacher tablet with an Android App called ClassKlap. This app contains the complete Year Plan and all the Lesson Plans needed to teach in class. Teachers will now use ClassKlap to enable feedback loops for daily instructional activity, based on formative assessment questions in the Lesson Plan. This will ensure upgradation of traditional classrooms to one-to-one classrooms where teachers have the ability to check in real time how much of the class has understood a concept, and which students need what kind of remedial support. As part of ClassKlap, we also launched a parent app, which is used to communicate with parents, share photos of children doing classroom activities, share school notices, etc.
2. What specific problem does IMAX Program solve? How do you solve it?
YK: Currently, the education system is missing feedback loops which can drive dramatic improvements in learning.
Feedback loops can tell us:
- Pre-existing gaps of students entering a grade
- Whether the instructional activity of a day has helped students progress or not
- Gaps of students from a grade-level exam
- The nature of remedial intervention that should be provided to which group of students
- Whether teachers need to learn a more suitable explanation for a concept
- The nature of activities that parents can perform to remediate specific gaps
- The specific instructional and behavioural interventions that school leaders can deploy
IMAX Program works strongly towards improving feedback loops within a school to help students achieve mastery learning. The company does this by taking over classroom transactions and school examinations and then using that data to provide personalized remedials.
Solving this problem at scale is not easy – it requires a multidisciplinary team of educators, technologists, designers, logisticians, software engineers and product managers to pull it off.
3. What’s the future of education?
Prediction #1: Currently, outside-school programs are proliferating that essentially repeat the school sessions. There will be a short-term increase in outside-school tuition supply due to cheaper computing power and demand for personalization. However, there will be a backlash and parents will want schools to provide this value of personalization.
Prediction #2: School curricula will come under increased pressure to orient to a world where current jobs are disappearing and replaced by technology. These curricula will need to demonstrate that children exhibit high levels of creativity, critical thinking and collaboration to have them world-ready.
Prediction #3: Education systems are largely untouched by recent advances in cognitive sciences, education research and machine learning. The best entrepreneurs will reconfigure education systems using these advances and figure out how to integrate them into regular classrooms in a way that the technology fades into the background.
4. What are the top 3 technology trends you’re seeing in education?
YK: Tablets for students are seen as a silver bullet nowadays to deliver personalized education. However, I strongly believe that this is a false hope, especially for primary students, given the ill-effects of a high-stimulation, interactive medium on children's attention span. We need to balance it with an emphasis on manipulation of physical objects and real, interpersonal interactions.
We are also seeing key trends of data analytics, video and AR/VR in India and around the world. The challenge is that unless these are deeply integrated into the school curriculum, they will remain on the periphery and not contribute to actual learning.
5. Why is the education industry ripe for disruption?
The best disruption happens when a longstanding problem is solved 10x better at a fraction of the cost.
According to the ‘World Development Report 2018: ‘Learning to Realise Education’s Promise’, India ranks second after Malawi in a list of 12 countries wherein a grade 2 student could not read a single word of a short text. In rural India, only half of grade 5 students could fluently read text at the level of the grade 2 curriculum, which included sentences (in the local language) such as ‘It was the month of rains’ and ‘There were black clouds in the sky’.
India also tops the list of seven countries in which a grade 2 student could not perform two-digit subtraction. In rural India, just under three-quarters of students in grade 3 could not solve a two-digit subtraction such as 46 – 17, and by grade 5 half could still not do so. Even after several years in school, millions of children cannot read, write or do basic math.
In an age of self-driving cars and missions to Mars, we still haven’t cracked a way to get millions of children across the world to master basic reading, writing and maths. For many, its truly like living in the dark ages. It is a tremendous entrepreneurial opportunity to figure how to get the most effective learning to millions across the world at a fraction of the cost.
About Yogi Kulkarni
Prior to IMAX Program, he spent five years at Flipkart where he was part of the rocket-ship growth of the company from a fledgling startup to a multi-billion dollar company. During this time he led the team which rebuilt Flipkart’s supply chain system and was part of the core leadership team that built Flipkart's Cloud Platform.
Before that he spent eight years at ThoughtWorks, in Bangalore and San Francisco, working on some of the largest distributed agile projects in the world. During this time he also took a sabbatical to start a stock analytics startup, raised angel funding, and was Entrepreneur in Residence at Artiman Ventures.
Yogi joined IMAX Program because he saw a company that was approaching education from a multi-disciplinary, first-principles mindset and was willing to take on tough problems e.g. building a last-mile logistics system for on-time delivery of printed question papers as part of their Examination-as-a-Service offering.
Yogi studied Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, and discovered his love for software after graduation. He went on to do his PGDST in Computer Science from National Center for Software Technology and has been a software craftsman since then, for over 20 years.
Outside of work, Yogi loves reading non-fiction and watching football – and enjoys the roller-coaster ride of being a Liverpool FC fan.