Prafulla Shashikant, 33, has worked tirelessly to ensure that children from the country’s most backward and marginalized groups can complete their education.

In part, it was his own experiences that inspired it.

Born into a lower-middle-class family in the Beed district of Maharashtra, he was a first-generation learner who witnessed the challenges that Marathwada still faces today. The region is highly drought-prone and has high rates of farmer suicides. For Bravola, it was imperative that he use his expertise to change the region’s narrative.

Jars of water waiting to be filled from a small piped tank in Marathwada
Prafulla belongs to the Marathwada region, which is severely drought-prone and sees a rise in farmer suicides. (photo: for representation)

This idea of ​​change led to the birth of VOPA, or the Vowels of the People Association, in the year 2018. With this organization, Prafulla is working to ensure the right to quality education for children belonging to the low-income groups in the state. He developed VSchool, a free online platform and app that provides students with reference material based on their language medium that, Prafulla says, can be replicated with any region, state or curriculum.

With this said, thousands of students and educators in the most disadvantaged areas of the state have found an easier and more inclusive way to continue learning.

For Prafulla, this need to drive change was innate.

to create a ripple effect

VOPA co-founder Prafulla Shashikant sits between two friends
For Prafulla (centre), the need to effect change is instinctive. (Photo: Alankrita Khera)

After finishing class 12, he moved to Aurangabad to pursue mechanical engineering. Inspired by the values ​​of Ambedkar and Gandhi, he started a social activist youth group called Geneva with two of his friends.

“These were the days that shaped my vision of the future,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized that my purpose in life lay beyond engineering and that I was more interested in addressing social issues.”

After graduation, he decided to join the civil service to serve the country. He moved to Pune, where he was selected in Yashada – a training institute run by the Government of Maharashtra.

In the first year, he did the pre-examination and went for the UPSC tubes. But tragedy struck when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to drop out of his studies midway to take care of her.

When she passed away in 2010, Prafulla was left to deal with the uncertainty of life. To cope, he began looking for a way to contribute meaningfully to society.

This search led him to the Gadchiroli district, where he joined Nirman, a program that motivates young people to contribute to social change, led by Padma Shri awardee Dr. Abhay Bang.

Motivated by their work and approach, he decided to join their efforts and work on various educational projects while leading a project called Kumar Nirman, which focused on social awareness and value education for school children.

A little boy hugs his mother while she is preparing food
When his mother fell ill, Prafulla had to leave UPSC preparation midway (Photo: Alankrita Khera)

During this time, Prafulla also pursued a postgraduate program in Development Management from S.P. Jain University to deepen his understanding of the social sector.

In 2017, he realized that while Nirman focused on educated youth, youth from underdeveloped communities and those with less exposure deserved the same opportunity.

After a six-month hiatus from soul-searching and brainstorming with friends and mentors alike, he started VOPA.

“Many people ask me what is the significance or meaning of the vowels in a name. As an organization, we want to use the core drivers of social change—to agitate, educate, excite, organize, and advocate—to help marginalized communities lift themselves up. Each of those words begins with a vowel, hence the letter. The idea came.

VOPA is involved in building an ecosystem that will democratize the creation, consumption and standardization of knowledge and educational learning.

“Education is the most effective way to solve social issues – sustainable change is the driver of cultural change, which in turn is driven by education. It impacts generations. Instead of working with just a few schools in a few areas, I wanted to create a ripple effect,” Prafulla explains.

Today, VOPA works closely with government, teachers, school leaders, parents, and students to enable children from marginalized communities to obtain their right to an education.

For their pilot project, they worked with Snehalaya, an organization that runs a school in Ahmednagar for HIV-positive children, orphans, children of sex workers, and more. They worked on the high rate of teacher attrition, which Prafulla attributes to social taboos around the issues Snehalaya was addressing.

People gather in a circle to lead discussions
VOPA empowers children from marginalized communities to realize their right to education. (Photo: Alankrita Khera)

In 2019, the organization planned to expand its efforts – Zila Parishad of Beed and Ahmednagar gave the team permission to work on improving the learning experience for children in the area.

That’s when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Schools were closed and people expected teachers to teach online, even though they hadn’t done so before. Local governments have been approving of untested online learning solutions, and have expected teachers to implement them effectively, Prafulla points out.

Then there was also the issue of students not being able to afford online education.

The VOPA team studied existing solutions such as Google Classroom, Zoom, local applications by county governments, etc., but realized that they were not effective in children’s learning. “Designed for adults who can study independently, the interface was not interactive and did not contain pictures or colors. Students and teachers alike had a difficult time navigating these apps to find the right content.”

Inclusive education made simple

This is how the idea of ​​VSchool was born. The team developed a lesson plan website that was open source and easy to use for both students and teachers. Prafulla says the website has been designed in such a way that it can be loaded on any phone with internet access, even if the bandwidth is low.

To create the lesson plan, Prafulla worked with Rahul Rekhavar, former district collector of Beed, to train 15 teachers to develop digital learning content for Grade 10 students.

Young Muslim girls use an online app to study
VSchool is free, easy to use and available in the local language (Photo: Alankrita Khera)

Lessons are designed using videos, stories, and puzzles to encourage students’ curiosity. All the lesson plans were in Marathi, including subjects like English, Science and Mathematics, to suit the language needs of teachers in rural areas.

With no clicks or multiple pages, and no ads, the results are clear. “Beed had about 50,000 students studying in class 10, but the website saw more than five thousand unique visitors across India in just two to three months,” says Prafulla.

Rahul Rakhwar says, “We have implemented the VSchool initiative at Beed and in a very short span of time, it has positively affected a large number of students, who were not able to afford regular online education. A couple of years ago, it seems it has spread all over Maharashtra and benefits students across the grades, especially from the economically poor segments of society.”

Atish, a village boy from Dongarkinhi in Beed, who completed class 10 in 2020, used VSchool to teach children from Basti. “Our parents didn’t have money to spend on online lessons. By using VSchool, we saved 40-50,000 rupees,” he says.

After a year, all the students who studied using the Aatish phone had successfully passed more than 80% of the board exam marks, he claimed.

Another Beed student, Bhakti, said, “At first it was difficult for us to study; all the materials available online were in English. But in VSchool, we got all the academic content in Marathi, which helped. It is also very easy to use.”

A man named Atish smiles as he sits in front of a cycle

For the people and by the people

VOPA has also developed content for classes 1-9, this time designing it for adults to teach young children. Instructions were provided with audio, video and picture, which included basics like how parents should sit with the child, what they are supposed to say when the child gives the wrong answer, how the child appreciates when he does something well etc.

In June 2021, the VSchool website was converted into an app to make the initiative accessible, cost effective and easy to use. And all content in one click.

“We think the social sector has a lot to learn from companies. Look at Gmail or Wikipedia – free for everyone and efficient to use. The image of social workers is often associated with Jola Carriers who do not believe in the power of technology to bring about social change. But that is changing,” says Prafulla.

VSchool operates on a “for the people and by the people” model – with donations often coming from the stakeholders themselves.

Children gather near a cowshed to use an online app to study
In June 2021, the VSchool website has been converted into an app. (Photo: Alankrita Khera)

Prafulla says he didn’t get paid for much of his VOPA and VSchool journey. “My sisters and wife have been a huge financial support to the family – they know that sacrifices must be made if we are to achieve our mission; our dream is to enable all children from disadvantaged backgrounds to complete their education.”

Today, VSchool app has trained over 2,000 teachers to create and publish over 2,700 lesson plans in Marathi, Semi-English and Urdu, with over 9,000 videos for student use. Using the app has also reduced the number of girls who drop out, Prafulla says, adding another feather in VOPA’s cap.

Abhijit Raut, Jalgaon District Collector says, “We are implementing VSchool in Jalgaon, and the VOPA team has been instrumental in making digital education accessible to every student in the district. They have provided a great platform for our teachers as they create and use quality digital content for students.”

VOPA’s journey has been accelerated by ACT, a nonprofit philanthropic platform that aims to catalyze social change at scale, and is currently enabling the VSchool app to build contextual learning resources for more children in other areas; Including a partnership with the NASC Tribal Development Department. .

Meanwhile, Prafulla says, “By expanding the reach of VSchool, we want to provide a quality e-learning option that is easily accessible and free for all children. This is our contribution to achieving social justice.”

Edited by Divya Sethu


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