Isha Vidhya Collaboration Details

Video version of this update for those who prefer to watching/listening over reading…

In the previous blogpost I introduced you to the exciting new initiative we were engaged in, as part of our collaboration with Isha Vidhya. Since then we’ve made some progress and now we have more updates. In this post, along with those updates, I want to provide in-depth look into the mechanics of what we’re doing, how we are trying to achieve our goals and some of the challenges that we face along the way.

Why offer so much details?

I’m aware that not everyone may be interested in all these details at such depth, but there are a few reasons why I wish to publicly document these details. First reason is transparency, which is one of our core organisational values. I think transparency is a huge asset both for us as an organisation and for those that support us. It really helps us engage others in our journey. Second is that there may be others who could be attempting to achieve something similar to what we’re trying to do and they can benefit from our approaches and also learn from our mistakes. And last but not least, we wish to open up all the details of all our activities so that you as a reader can offer suggestions, help us improve our efforts and perhaps even solve some problems for us and participate in that way. In case you’re not interested in knowing all the details in a verbose fashion, you may skip to the very end and read a tl;dr version at the very end, in the conclusion paragraph.

Challenges so far

Our current learning setup, which I will describe in a moment, is a few iterations ahead of what we had tried up until now. At first we decided that we will use the Google Classroom platform to organise the learning content. So we went by instinct and created a single class on Google Classroom and had the students join the class using the class code (for those unaware of how Google Classroom works, it lets students join the class using several methods. One using a class code, which if the teacher shares to the students, they can just enter the class as a student using the code, and another method where they can get email invites to join the class.)

The issue with this was that the students were joining using their parents’ email IDs and it was impossible to tell which student was joining, because it would show their parents’ or siblings’ name. Second, it became evident that a lot of these kids were logging into the class using multiple email IDs, whichever email ID was accessible to them on the phone at the moment. So it was impossible to get an accurate count of how many unique students had actually joined the class. Also, it was clear that having all the students from all the schools be in one class was not so convenient for the teachers, and so they expressed that they would prefer having separate classes for each of the schools.

How we overcame these challenges

After discussing these issues with the teachers on our dedicated admin group on WhatsApp, the teachers and we collectively arrived at a plan to reorganise the way things worked.

  1. Create own email ID —The first thing that we decided to address was the fact that these students didn’t have their own email ID. So we asked the students to create an individual email ID for themselves in a specific format. I created a screencast video on my phone where I created a new Gmail ID as a demonstration and spoke through it instructing them on how they should do it.
  2. Register their new email ID — And once they were done creating it, they were supposed to register that new email ID along with their name, school and phone number so that we had a master list of all the email IDs that would be in use along with information about who that email ID belonged to.
  3. Verification of email — We anticipated that a lot of them would have entered an invalid email ID or might have accidentally had a typo in their email ID. So as soon as students started filling out the form and I was receiving responses, I sent them an email in which I asked them to reply back with the word “Verified”. So whoever was able to respond back, I could mark them as verified.
  4. Team registration form — We also created a second form where we asked the team leaders to register their teams. They were required to enter the names of all their team members along with their respective email IDs and a team name and team logo etc. In fact, this is the basis of the team listings that you can see in the Isha CS Leaderboard app.
  5. Enter classroom through invite only — We also changed the settings in our classes on Google Classroom, where we disabled joining the class using a class code. We instead started sending email invites to the verified email IDs and the students were able to join the classroom using that. This was the whole purpose of collecting the email IDs and having them verified in the first place. Unfortunately though the way that these email invites work, you can click on the join classroom link in the email invite and end up joining using a different email ID. And a whole lot of our students are not familiar enough with the concept of multiple email IDs to be aware of these nuances. So this ended up not being as effective as we had hoped for.

Responses to the Email ID registration form where I mark individual responses as verified, among other things.

Our current setup: Where we stand now…

As of this writing our current learning infrastructure includes 3 Google Classroom classes, one for each school (SGP, DHA and ERD) in which I am the primary instructor responsible for organising the course content. Each classroom has one or two teachers from each school added with teacher privileges in the Classroom who are assisting me in conducting the course. With the teacher privileges, they can see the submissions of the students for the assignments and also take care of the grading. However I am now responsible for grading the assignments for all the kids in all the schools at the moment. But I am training an independent volunteer to assist me with the grading.

We also have groups in WhatsApp where we keep in touch with the students. There are school-specific groups handled by the teachers but also groups that are dedicated to all the students from all locations participating in this course. We have three announcement groups (we intended to have just one group for all the students but WhatsApp restricts each group to just 256 members per group, so we had to create separate groups to accommodate all the students) where only the admins are allowed to make posts. So these are groups where I make announcements and offer instructions to guide the students on issues that are faced by a majority of the students. The kids are also encouraged to reach out to me individually in case they are facing difficulties or have doubts.

And obviously, all of this is being handled by the students through their internet-enabled smartphones where we’ve asked them to install both WhatsApp and Google Classroom. Previously they were simply using the email ID of their parents, siblings, or whoever else the phone belonged to. But now they are using their own email ID and through repeated instructions, many of them also recognise the concept of having multiple email IDs and being careful about checking which email ID they are currently using on any given app.

Even though things aren’t perfect at the moment, just these attempts to clean things up have led to the students learning a lot of new things, like how to create an email ID, how to check for and respond to emails and how to change user email in an app like Gmail or Google Classroom. However, our current setup is not without problems.

Challenges that remain

Some statistics about participation, as of 8th Sep, 2020

One of the benefits of the clean up efforts we took was that we now had clear statistical data and identifying information on the students who are participating. Using scripts written for the leaderboard app, we were able to auto-generate some statistics on the degree of participation of these students in the course activities. The following are some key takeaway points:-

  1. Not all students joined the Classroom app — Of the 506 students (see cell E2 in the table above) with internet-enabled smartphones at home across the three locations, only 185 students (see cell E10) have joined the classroom app. While this may seem like a small number, it has to be noted that this number was much lower a while ago and is slowly rising as we persistently repeat our instructions and ask the students to join the classroom and assist them on an individual basis. But nonetheless, this is a considerably small number (at just 36.5%, see cell E16) and leaves a lot to be desired in terms of participation.
  2. Not all students in the classroom are responding to assignments — Row 11 in the table above indicates the number of students who have been added in the classroom but have yet to respond to any of the assignments in there. There are currently 2 weeks worth of assignments, 6 in total, that are awaiting student responses. You can see that of the 185 students (cell E10) who are added, 77 (cell E11) students have never done anything beyond adding themselves to the classroom. A total of 107 (difference between cell E10 and E11) students have made a submission, many of whom may have submitted just one or two assignments.
  3. Low-effort submissions — Of the students who do submit responses to the assignments, not everyone is actually putting in the effort required for it to count as actual work. There are a number of students who simply click on the submit button on all assignments, although not a large number. I would estimate this to be around 10–30%, a number that is declining as the students get to learn the platform.

Possible reasons for the challenges

There are other challenges, but these would be the top ones. As to why these challenges remain, I consulted with the teachers from these schools to get a ground level understanding of the root causes. Here are some noteworthy observations:-

  1. Low technology literacy — A lot of these families from which these students hail are low-income rural families that don’t have educated adults in the household. And up until recently, many families did not even own a smartphone. Smartphone and internet-enabled devices are fairly new to not just the kids but also the adults in the house. This combined with the fact that most of them are not literate in English becomes an obstacle when it comes to knowing how to use smartphones.
  2. Limited availability — Although the household possesses a smartphone, it is not always available for the children to use. Most of these phones belong to the parents and the parents travel for work during the day and so the only time that the students get to spend with the phone is limited to late evenings in the day and they can only do so much during that time.
  3. Not motivated enough — We also have to consider the possibility that not every child is keen about learning programming or learning anything for the matter. Sometimes playing could seem more fun than completing assignments and from my candid discussions with the teachers, I can affirm that there are many who don’t care enough to complete school work.

Some things that can help

The Google Classroom platform is quite sufficient for our needs and it is fairly accessible regardless of the device used, i.e. whether on a smartphone or a laptop. But there are a few things that are left to be desired in terms of how well integrated it is and how easy it is to configure for someone completely unfamiliar with technology. I would imagine it being a lot easier if there was a dedicated platform where students can login and see everything they needed to see and also be notified of announcements and see their team information etc, all within a single app. This way, it wouldn’t be a general purpose app being used for this particular course, but a dedicated application being used and the students can just remember to get in and get all the things noticed inside of the environment instead of seeing notifications from teachers on whatsApp and then seeing assignments on Google Classroom and also having to configure the user email ID on the classroom.

I would not have expected these little nuances of the classroom app to have mattered so much, but I’ve learned from experience that even the littlest of aspects concerning end user experience do matter a lot in deciding how seamless usage is on the ground. But one could also argue that it comes with the advantage that the kids end up having to learn the tools rather than comfortably get by without having to.


In conclusion, we have reached quite a distance since we started, but challenges do persist, some of which we can progressively improve on, some others aren’t really in our control. But if the progress we’ve made so far is an indication of what is to come, we can confidently foresee a great future for our efforts in terms of beneficial outcomes.

Update I — Some links originally in this post are now not available and have been removed.

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