Prafulla Shashikant (33) has worked tirelessly to ensure that children from the country’s most backward and marginalised factions are able to complete their education.
In part, it was his own experiences that inspired this.
Born in a lower middle-class family in Maharashtra’s Beed district, he was a first generation learner who witnessed the challenges that Marathwada continues to struggle with even today. The region is extremely drought-prone and sees high incidence of farmer suicides. For Prafulla, it was imperative that he used his experiences to change the narrative of the region.
This idea for change gave birth to VOPA, or Vowels of People Association, in 2018. With this organisation, Prafulla works to ensure the right to quality education to children belonging to low-income groups in the state. He developed VSchool, a free online platform and app that provides students with resource material based on their language medium, Prafulla says this can be replicated with any district, state, or syllabus.
With this, thousands of students and teachers in the state’s most underserved regions have found an easier and inclusive way to continue learning.
For Prafulla, this need to drive change has been innate.
To create a ripple effect
After clearing Class 12, he moved to Aurangabad to pursue mechanical engineering. Inspired by Ambedkar and Gandhian values, he started a youth social activism group called Janeev along with two of his friends.
“These were the days that shaped my vision for the future,” he recalls. “It’s when I realised that my purpose in life lay beyond engineering and that I was more interested in addressing social issues.”
After graduation, he decided to go into civil services to serve the nation. He moved to Pune, where he was selected at Yashada — a training institute run by the Government of Maharashtra.
In the first year, he cleared the pre-examination and went for UPSC mains. But tragedy struck when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to leave his studies midway to care for her.
When she passed away in 2010, Prafulla was left to deal with the uncertainty of life. To cope, he began searching for a way to contribute meaningfully to society.
This search took him to Gadchiroli district, where he joined Nirman, a programme that motivates youth 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 worked on various educational projects while spearheading a project called Kumar Nirman, which focused on the social sensitisation and value education of school children.
During this time, Prafulla also pursued the Post Graduate Programme in Development Management from S P Jain University to deepen his understanding about the social sector.
In 2017, he realised that while Nirman focussed on the intellectual youth, young adults from backward communities and with less exposure deserved the same opportunity.
After a six-month hiatus of soul searching and brainstorming with friends and mentors alike, he started VOPA.
“Many people ask me what is the significance or meaning of Vowels in the name. As an organisation, we want to use core drivers of social change — Agitate, Educate, Ignite, Organise, and Usher — to help marginalised communities uplift themselves. Each of these words starts with a vowel, so that’s how the idea came from,” he says.
VOPA engages in building an ecosystem that would democratise the creation, consumption, and standardisation of knowledge and educational learning.
“Education is the most effective way to solve social issues — sustainable change drives cultural change, which in turn is driven by education. It impacts generations. Instead of working with just a few schools in a few districts, I wanted to create a ripple effect,” Prafulla explains.
Today, VOPA works closely with the government, teachers, school leaders, parents, and students to enable children from marginalised communities to get their right to education.
For their pilot project, they worked with Snehalaya, an organisation that runs a school in Ahmednagar for HIV positive children, orphans, children of sex workers, and more. They worked on the high attrition rate of teachers, which Prafulla attributes to social taboos around the issues Snehalaya was tackling.
In 2019, the organisation planned to scale its efforts — the Zila Parishad of Beed and Ahmednagar had given permission to the team to work on improving the learning experience of children in the district.
That’s when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Schools shut down and people expected teachers to teach online, even though they had never done so before. Local governments were approving untested online learning solutions, and expected teachers to implement them effectively, Prafulla notes.
Then there was also the problem of students being unable to afford online education.
The VOPA team studied existing solutions like Google Classroom, Zoom, local apps by the district governments, etc, but realised that they weren’t effective for children’s learning. “The interface was built for adults who could study independently, it was not interactive and had no imagery or colour. Students and teachers alike had a tough time navigating these apps to find the right content,” he explains.
Inclusive education made simple
That’s how the idea of the VSchool was born. The team developed a lesson plan website which was open source and user-friendly for both students as well as teachers. Prafulla says the website was designed in a way that it could load on any phone with internet access, even if the bandwidth was low.
To create the lesson plan, Prafulla worked with Rahul Rekhavar, former district collector of Beed, to train 15 teachers in developing digital learning content for Class 10 students.
The lessons were built using videos, stories, and puzzles to encourage student curiosity. All lesson plans were in Marathi, including subjects like English, Science, and Maths, to suit the language needs of teachers in rural areas.
With no multiple clicks or pages, and no adverts, the results became evident. “Beed had around 50,000 students studying in Class 10, but the website saw over five lakh unique visitors across India in just 2-3 months,” says Prafulla.
Rahul Rekhawar says, “We implemented the VSchool initiative in Beed and in a very short period of time, it has very positively impacted lakhs of students, who were not able to afford regular online education. Two years since then, it seems to have spread across Maharashtra and is benefiting students across grades, especially from economically poor sections of society.”
Atish, a village boy from Dongarkinhi in Beed, who completed Class 10 in 2020, used VSchool to teach children from his basti. “Our parents didn’t have money to spend on online classes. By using VSchool, we have saved Rs 40-50,000,” he says.
A year later, all the students who studied using Aatish’s phone passed with more than 80% marks in their board exams, he claims.
Another student from Beed, Bhakti, said, “Initially it was difficult for us to study; all the material available on the internet was in English. But in VSchool, we got all the academic content in Marathi, which helped us. Also, it’s very simple to use.”
‘For and by the people’
VOPA also developed content for classes 1-9, this time designing it for adults to teach young children. Instructions were given in audio, video, and pictorial format, which included basics like how parents should sit with the child, what they are supposed to say when a child gives a wrong answer, how to appreciate when a child does something good etc.
In June 2021, the VSchool website was converted into an app to make the initiative accessible, cost-effective, and user-friendly The website principles were applied to the creation of the VSchool app — same pedagogy, no advertisements, low internet-enabled, and all content in a single click.
“We believe that the social sector has a lot to learn from corporates. Look at Gmail or Wikipedia — free for everyone and efficient to use. The image of social workers is often associated with jhola carriers who don’t believe in the power of technology to bring social change. But that’s changing,” says Prafulla.
VSchool runs on a “for the people and by the people model” — with donations often coming in from stakeholders themselves.
Prafulla says that for a major part of VOPA and VSchool’s journey, he didn’t draw a salary. “My sisters and my wife have been a huge financial support for the family — they know that sacrifices need to be made if we want to attain our mission; our dream of enabling all children from underserved backgrounds to complete their education,” he says.
Today, the VSchool App has trained over 2,000 teachers to create and deploy over 2,700 lesson plans in Marathi, semi-English and Urdu, with more than 9,000 videos for student use. Prafulla says the use of the app has also decreased the number of drop out girls, adding yet 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 each and every student of the district. They have provided a wonderful platform for our teachers where they create quality digital content and utilise it for the students.”
VOPA’s journey has been accelerated by ACT, a non-profit venture philanthropy platform that aims to catalyse social change at scale, and is currently enabling the VSchool app to build contextual learning resources for more children across other districts; including a partnership with the Tribal Development Department in Nasik. .
Meanwhile, Prafulla says, “By expanding VSchool’s reach, we want to give an accessible, free and qualitative e-learning option to all the children. This is our contribution towards social justice.”
Edited by Divya Sethu