We like to focus on opportunities and not the problems: Ashish Jhalani, Square Panda

Jhalani, Global CMO & MD India, Square Panda, talks about the key initiatives of his company, leveraging digital, challenges faced in the country and more

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Published: Oct 26, 2020 9:24 AM  | 7 min read
ashish jalani

Early learning is one of the smartest investments a nation can do. Education along with English literacy should be the key deliverable for economic growth of any country. With the pandemic shifting the entire conversations to digital now, sectors across economies have adapted to the changing paradigm. Education sector too was prompt enough in changing its base from blackboards to screens. Subsequent rise in edutech companies also made the adaption process less cumbersome.

One such edutech player is Square Panda, India. With a unique positioning in the space of early childhood learning and literacy (English) in India, it launched products based on Artificial Intelligence with Andre Agassi in India last year. 

With a strong belief in ‘nation building through early English literacy’, the Silicon Valley-based edutech company empowers children with early literacy and English language by partnering with state governments in India to provide the entire spectrum of foundational literacy. We caught up with Ashish Jhalani, Global CMO and MD India- Square Panda, to find out about the key initiatives by the company, leveraging digital, challenges faced in the country, future plans and more.

Edited Excerpts

Please take us through the initiatives taken by Square Panda

Worldwide, Square Panda has been working on projects alongside the government and impact organizations to show the efficacy of its foundational English literacy programme. For eg, each state in the US has its own targets and literacy goals and they need a partner like Square Panda to fulfill them.

We have taken the same path in India with a pro-establishment strategy. We are enablers to the government wherever we go. This being a state government subject, we have already been part of three pilots, one in Chhattisgarh and two in Mumbai with the Akanksha Foundation and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. These have yielded encouraging results.

Our aim is to make millions of students not only learn but also internalize the concepts, become more confident and use the learnings to read newer words and sentences.  

How has the organisation leveraged digital during the unprecedented scenario? How have the digital campaigns performed? 

Square Panda used both TV and digital platforms to build brand awareness during the lockdown. We took a mix of news & lifestyle channel such as ET Now, Mirror Now, MNX, Movies Now, Romedy Now and Times Now and digital platforms such as TOI, ET, Gadget Now and others. These campaigns drove an enormous amount of B2C subscribers to the platform and helped build a brand with B2B & B2G sectors. Square Panda also continued to use email marketing and social media to create targeted brand awareness campaigns.  

Digital is extremely critical to our work, because when it comes to the Square Panda literacy programme, our entire ecosystem is built on the cloud that enables smooth distribution of our programmes. 

We are focusing on grassroots impact to ensure that we have tailored the technology backend of the programme in such a way that our programs work even with limited internet connectivity. 

To leverage the scenario where children were studying remotely, we launched our school-to-home programme. The children continue their learning from home and the teachers can remotely monitor what each child is learning and how well they are learning.     

What have been the engagement rates when it comes to promoting English literacy in the rural areas? 

Both the  National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)  focus on the message to concentrate on foundational literacy and numeracy. This has driven the interest in Square Panda’s English literacy programme multi-fold. When we ran pilots and user studies in rural areas, we found that the children were very engaged in learning English and quickly picked up concepts. To our surprise, the children that never spoke a word of English quickly started to use English words in their daily conversations.  

The Central and state governments do recognize the need for our children to not only be literate but be literate in English across the country (especially rural areas). This literacy changes the growth trajectory of these children.   

What are the major challenges that the organization faces in the country? 

As a pro-establishment organization, Square Panda works to solve issues across the literacy spectrum as a partner to the state government. We like to focus on the opportunity and not on the problems- for eg; initially, there was not  adequate focus on ECCE. But now by bringing ECCE to the centre of the education stage and by clearly declaring that ECCE is the greatest and most powerful equalizer, NEP 2020 has given the highest priority to building strong foundations early in a child’s life. 
This new focus allows us to execute the vision of equipping young children with the power of literacy and language. Another positive is that India's administrators have a very practical view of the India v/s Bharat conundrum. They are aware that English is the one binding language across India.

Every job application, inter-state portability is in English. Hence, they do not want to create silos within India. Countries that have adopted English as their language of interaction have made great progress. 

Perhaps infrastructure is a genuine challenge and yes it is, but to Square Panda, the greatest challenge is that we need enough qualified teachers.

What are the key areas the organisation is investing in? 

Our mission is to support the government to build a new India where every child has acquired foundational skills. Hence, our motto is 'Bharat ka vikas ho saccha, jab English seekhey har baccha'.

NEP2020 has placed ECCE at the centre of the education stage. We are investing heavily in building and implementing ECCE programmes in India in three different ways-

Teacher training: One in six elementary teachers in India are not trained. The New Education Policy outlines many arguments; most important of which is that currently India spends only 3% of its GDP on education and ranks 62nd in total public expenditure on education per student. Square Panda has already started its teacher training initiative,  making this change happen.

Engaging curriculum: The need is for an exciting & apt curriculum for the early learners that incorporates activity and experience-based learning, including game based learning and storytelling. This will ensure both attention and retention among students.

Measuring progress: Appropriate formative assessment and feedback mechanism that actually measures the learning outcomes, checks on conceptual clarity & critical thinking rather than just highlighting negative responses to students’ performance. Positive motivators will improve student-faculty relationship and ensure that each student becomes a partner in their own progress.

What does the future have in store?

Currently, there are 240 million children under the age of 8 residing in India, who can benefit from our literacy programme. We are quite excited about this journey and working tirelessly in executing our mission of supporting the government to build a new India where every child has acquired foundational English literacy. We are also bringing the latest technology and best practices in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to provide unique learning experiences.

The administrators in India are keen to ensure that we bring worldclass (contextualized to India) teacher training programmes to upskill the teachers and anganwadi workers, a vital force and catalyst of the Indian education system.  Square Panda is excited to be part of this endeavour.


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