“My students always told me that I was a subversed teacher. They said somehow you teach in a subversive fashion. I like that.”

In conversation with Jyoti Thyagarajan, founder of Meghashala (school on the cloud)

How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?

Well the philanthropy technically didn’t start until a couple of years back. But it all links back to my teaching career which began a bazillion years ago when I married my husband Tyagu. I began my life as a teacher in Africa where we first lived for about 10-12 years. Teaching is the kind of profession that either reaches out and grabs you, or it reaches out and boots you out. I don’t think there are any in between ways in which teaching treats people. Well I have always been the former, it reached out and grabbed me. We moved back to India, and I have been teaching here for another 10-12 years. I have been teaching maths and physics all my life at high schools and pre-universities.

The odd thing is that ,the longer I stayed on the job, the more adventurous I got. I have had the utmost pleasure and thrill of teaching students all the way up from grade 1 and 2 to grade 8 and 9. It was scary as these classes are way different and you can’t talk to a child like how you talk to a teenager.

“The odd thing is that ,the longer I stayed on the job, the more adventurous I got. I have had the utmost pleasure and thrill of teaching students all the way up from grade 1 and 2 to grade 8 and 9.”

Right before retiring, I remember being quite pleased with what I had done with my life. I had taught children from many schools. They would take the education they received from me, their parents, their friends and their school and make the world a better place. What a nice thought!

But as I thought about it more carefully and did a count of how many kids I might have taught in my 40 years of teaching. The total came to 800 students. 800 students out of 60 million children in the world, and I realised there wasn’t a chance for any teacher or any group of teachers in their lifetime, to make a dent in the world population. It saddened me that a thin slice of the population has access to meaningful education, that they can utilize to revolutionize the world. But the harsh reality remains that thechildren who don’t have access to this meaningful education are the ones who need it the most. They are at the bottom of the pyramid and have to keep fighting to raise their standard of living. They are stuck in a rut that they can only get out of with the help of the right kind of education.

“I remember being quite pleased with what I had done with my life. I had taught children from many schools. They would take the education they received from me, their parents, their friends and their school and make the world a better place. What a nice thought!”

I was at my last conference where the topic of discussion was far from what was going on in my mind. I spoke to a few people there too. I said, “This is nuts! I mean we’re all just sitting here, learning and refining our careers and by the time the end of our career comes, we reach only 800 children!” It’s a colossal race where only the privileged are allowed to grow and prosper! Then a man sitting next to me and hearing my rant, walked upto me and said, “Can we have lunch together?”

This turned out to be Sridhar Ranganathan, who runs Shankar Mahadevan’s Academy of Music which is completely online. He told me that he overheard what I was telling the other people at the conference and said, “Can we sit and actually find a solution for this?” And I said, “I’m finished, you know. I’ve taught my life away so now what?”

He said he was interested in building a learning management system and asked me if I would help him. So we collaborated together on the system’s foundation. Since then he has refined it and tweaked it into a clever little learning management system which now is excruciatingly brilliant. He told me, “If you be the teacher, I will be the tech. Without something new, without innovation, this can’t multiply.”

That’s how our journey began. I started loading lessons that I would like on to the teaching platform. We went about distributing these to teachers, asking them to try it. We also gave them a tape to follow as well. And oddly enough, the teachers liked it. We are in the hands of 380 teachers and government school block education officers who come and talk to us. In the process we got noticed by the government who called us one of the top 20 innovators in India. The monetary aspect has always been tough, but Tata’s pitched in and gave us enough funding to build the curriculum to take it to the whole state of Karnataka.

The name Meghshala is based on the idea behind the whole school which was that I would use a cloud to build a school. So I put the thought on Facebook, and my students in Africa, India along with my friends brainstormed and came up with the name Meghshala. We decided to call our platform – CloodOn; it was wonderful as none of the people involved had ever met before. This made me even more dedicated to my goal. I also realized that this would require me to start from the bottom all over again. Who better to learn about technology from than the youth? My Meghshala is full of young people. The average age I’m guessing is about 27. So I have people from 24 to 65. I am the oldest one there.

“It saddened me that a thin slice of the population has access to meaningful education, that they can utilize to revolutionize the world.”

“The name Meghshala is based on the idea behind the whole school which was that I would use a cloud to build a school.”

I decided to start with a pre-pilot and my fellow trustee Sridhar said, “What on earth is a pre-pilot?” A pre-pilot tells us what to do in the pilot. A pilot tells us what to do in the project. We did a pre-pilot for two weeks following which we were joined by my friends from Mallya Aditi International School (where Jyothi worked for a number of years).The pre-pilot was a great success. So we did the pre-pilot in 2 schools one government and one private. The government school loved it.

I didn’t teach, I just decided what was to be taught. The exceptional government teachers whom we had brought under our wing were initially quite afraid let loose of the reigns in class. But now they follow the plan and allow the kids to speak up, ask questions and are comfortable with having a little noise in the classroom. Our first group after the success of the pre-pilot consisted of about 12 people.

We then joined hands with a couple of government schools in Gubi and north of Hebbal. At this school we decided to do some tests. One at the beginning of the semester and another one to measure the progress, at the end of the semester. We found out to our surprise that the students’ test results actually increased 4 times after being introduced to our curriculum.

This was an eye-opener for me and a representation of the complete lack of attention the children faced before Meghshala.  With this result we were able to go to the Tata’s and get funding. I put all my savings in to the foundation as well to begin work on grades 1 to 8. With this we are able to make sure that all the teachers that work in our school are paid as much as they would be in a high-end school.

Its secret sauce is the Teachkit. Each of these kits is written by a ‘master teacher’ in its team in an effort to “bring thoughtful pedagogy to the curriculum,”. These come packed with content that includes videos, class activities, fun examples and questions designed to make students think out of the box and understand concepts better. The Teachkits are uploaded to the cloud and downloaded from there into individual teachers’ tablets, and then used in the classroom through handheld projectors. Meghshala accesses these two pieces of hardware from retail suppliers.

“We found out to our surprise that the students’ test results actually increased 4 times after being introduced to our curriculum.”

To talk a little about our team, our Vice President of Operations at Meghshala, left Google to come and join us. I told him, “You can’t leave Google, it’s not wise.” And he said, “Do you want anyone to work for you?” He brought in a bunch of people from ‘Teach for India’ to join us. We are in full hiring mode and have even had some Srishti designers come and join us. It’s a team driving a dream to be taking meaningful education to the bottom of the pyramid and making the dream “Meghshala” take shape and grow.

“The app – a free product for teachers – currently has more than 360 users across 140 schools, which shows that interest has only been peaking.”

Please tell us about the success on this journey?

Well there have been quite a few bumps in the road but the goal – the access to education for the target group of children who want to study is our future. That’s made the journey worthwhile. One of our initial successes would have to be, when the government reached out to us and asked us to be on a national teaching platform. We initially thought we would start out with 20 schools, but with the help of the government we were about to reach 80 schools in Bangalore, Mysore and Raichur together. We were afraid of the things we had heard like the lack of traction in schools when it comes to approving new things, but fortunately we didn’t face that. Maybe it was because we answered a serious need. The app – a free product for teachers – currently has more than 360 users across 140 schools, which shows that interest has only been peaking. We have teachers from Zimbabwe, Kenya and Pakistan who have joined us. So you could say, we’ve really gotten around.

The next on the list of success will be the form that we filled for NITI Aayog. We came among the top 20 of the all-India MEA-NITI Aayog Social Innovation Contest, organised by the Ministry of External Affairs.

In March 2017, the team was invited to talk to the Ministry of Human Resource Development about entering as many states in India as possible. As of now, they are already in talks with three state governments, quite helpful considering their goal is to reach 100,000 teachers by 2020.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) will always tell you that a fifth grader can’t read a second grade book. They’ve been saying it since 1999 up until last year. We thought well it’s not rocket science to teach a kid to read! We talked about the phonetic system, got my friend Tara Kinna, a Hindustani Classical singer to make little songs and poems that would help the kids and read and speak better. The kids from grade 1 began reading 4-letter words within 5 weeks after listening and understanding from our learning management system. That too was a huge milestone for us.

What are your future plans?

Our overall vision, is that we are hoping that our teaching solution will help turn around poor attendance figures, equally poor comprehension levels and higher-than-desirable dropout rates gradually.

In terms of curriculum, the future is definitely CBSE. CBSE is a great curriculum that requires additional attention. We want to work on making modules for this curriculum. We may have to talk to the Tata’s or find some other way to fund our next part of the journey but the future looks promising.

Remember Al Gore stating that India fit into Africa like 2 pieces of jigsaw puzzle. We have a similar history, both been colonised, similar geography and as a result we also have similar educational bottlenecks.

“Our overall vision, is that we are hoping that our teaching solution will help turn around poor attendance figures, equally poor comprehension levels and higher-than-desirable dropout rates gradually.”

“The books need to be attractive so that the children will want to read it.”

I have even spoken with secretaries from Uganda, Kenya and other places who are very excited about Meghshala. There are about 40-60 schools who are all eager to use our modules to up skill their teachers. They want to connect us with the Masai tribe as well. But the tricky part about my modules is that it needs to be contextualised for each group of people we are targeting. The African sense of colour is different from ours. The books need to be attractive so that the children will want to read it.

Another sector we wish to enter into is the wildlife communities. Both in Africa and India as both the countries are threatened in this aspect. We would like to be able to reach out to the children from Nagarahole and places like that and teach the kids how to live in the buffer zone of a national park and be an advocate for the animals.

Teaching them worthwhile skills and morals, this will naturally increase the standard of their living. We plan to set up the classes and also public textbook material in liaison with their lifestyle using relatable names, eye-catching colours and worthwhile topics that will hold the attention of the children. So a wildlife angle would be quite simple, it can be in mathematics where for calculating volume, we can say that an elephant eats so many kilograms of grass every day. Grass has this amount of density. What is the volume of the grass that the elephant eats? So we use the mathematics, history and other lessons to tell them that they have to support wildlife. So basically we’re just using their SSLC curriculum to teach them how to put animals back in the wildlife.

Our curriculum is different from most other curriculums. We truly believe that you must see it to believe it. This is of crucial importance to the whole world, especially to Asia. The students are just given examples with mathematical figures and calculation of the level of water pollution. There is no sense of urgency. We want the kids to be aware of the problems and also know of the measures to fight the problem. I purchased some aquarium test kits from the U.S. to provide our students a more practical way of testing water pollution.

“We want the kids to be aware of the problems and also know of the measures to fight the problem.”

We don’t want to put our names on other peoples’ work. We don’t even care whether our name is mentioned or not, we just want to be in the background. We are able to teach it with the eyeglasses of wildlife and inclusivity, making it a more meaningful.

How can anyone reach out to you to partner with you?

We are constantly looking for people who can partner with us and help us with our learning management system. If this is something, you wish to be art part of our organisation please write to us at info@yourphilanthropystory.in or ullas@meghashala.org.

Being a subversive teacher helps contextualize lessons, this way the education is more effective. We are just trying to teach kids a way of living their life more meaningfully.