Learning English and Mathematics the mGuru way

At 22, most of my friends had taken up internships or were job-hopping to figure out what worked best for them. I, however, had no clue what I wanted to do. And then, there are those like Adam Khorakiwala, who at that age had already interned with the World Bank, Palantir, and Unique Identification Authority of India (UIADI). He had also founded mGuru, a mobile learning app aimed at enhancing basic literacy and numeracy skills of K-5 students.

A Stanford University graduate with a major in Public Policy and a minor in Computer Science, Khorakiwala was always interested in “using technology to solve social problems”. While reading the 2014 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by Pratham, he realised that learning for the average person is not just poor, but criminally bad. “One out of two kids in Class 5, still reads and does Math at Class 2 level or less. At the same time, I knew that a smartphone could be bought for Rs 2,000 and in the next 3-5 years every family, whether they live in a penthouse in Lower Parel or a slum, will own a smartphone. It made no sense that kids would know so little, while their families have the world’s information in their pockets,” shares the 23-year-old, who was born in Virginia, lived in Manila till age 7, and then grew up in Mumbai until he moved to the US in 2011 to study.

With a scalable solution that could ultimately have an impact on those numbers in his mind, Khorakiwala returned to India after graduating in 2015. “For almost two months, I spent time with NGOs and in BMC schools, where I interviewed parents, students, teachers and NGO leaders to understand their problems, experiences and perspectives,” shares the Lower Parel-resident, who has worked on a range of things, including human rights, development and anti poverty.

From phonics to vocabulary, and grammar to comprehension, mGuru covers basic English skills through interactive games, stories and activities that are “built in-house in collaboration with a few NGO partners like LeapForWord and the Pratham English team. mGuru has around 60 stories, sourced through Pratham, to which we’ve added audio, questions and vocabulary. We have curated videos from the best sources on YouTube,” says Khorakiwala. New users go through a quick assessment that will roughly determine their level and unlock activities accordingly. Kids then go through levels and ‘worlds’ that correspond to different concepts.

“When I interviewed parents in slums around Mumbai, I could not find a primary-school student, who did not go to private tuition. If they’re willing to spend Rs 300-700 a month on tuitions, maybe they’ll pay Rs 40 a month for an app. During our interviews, every parent said that English and Math are the most important subjects, hence the focus on these two,” says Khorakiwala, who started working on the app at the end of 2015. The final Math version of the app should be out in about three months.

The mGuru team of five tested the prototype of the app with around 100 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation school students in Class 3 and 4. They spent an hour with them every Monday and Tuesday; while the kids had a go on the app using mGuru’s devices, the team observed what the kids understood and figured out what made sense. “Students did not know what to do next, or what to press. The app should have been obvious enough from a design perspective for those things to be clear. Aside from ease of use, the other main challenge was stickiness, so we started working with a design firm to make the app colourful, bright, lively and engaging; we added daily notifications and tasks, SMS report cards for the parents, the mascot—Motu the monkey, and the concept of earning and using mangoes and stars to unlock stories and videos,” says Khorakiwala, who is inspired by his parents, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and several other leaders in technology and politics. He loves food, sports, travel, and reading up on politics, technology and policy.

Currently bootstrapped with funding, mGuru plans to use the money it won this year for NASSCOM’s Social Innovation Prize in Primary and Secondary Education. Used by approximately 30, 000 kids, the app has been available for download on Android phones, since August 2016. While you can download the app for free, “unlimited usage of it falls behind a paywall”. It works without internet (except for videos), and has language options for Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati.