“My father was the first-generation school goer in his family. My grandmother was a handloom weaver who, despite facing an extremely difficult financial situation, convinced her family members and successfully put all her children through college. Hearing their stories, I realised how important it is for parents to be involved with their child's learning,” says Sindhuja Jeyabal, co-founder of Dost Education, a non-profit that empowers parents of any literacy level to take charge of their child’s education.
As we spoke about her work and the issues of educational equity amid the environs of an upmarket cafe in Race Course, I couldn’t help but notice the incongruity between her work and our surrounding. Jeyabal spoke of how her first job, with Adobe Systems reinforced this feeling. “I was building products related to education technology and I realised that there was going to be a problem of access.”
While studying at UC Berkley, she met Sneha Sheth, a fellow graduate student who had also worked in education and women empowerment projects. “We realised that many parents, especially in the low-income groups, saw education as the passport to a better life but had no idea about how to prepare the child to enter school and later support them through the learning process.”
And so the idea of Dost Education was born. After much brainstorming and research, Jeyabal and Sheth settled on the idea of telephone calls. “Almost everyone has a mobile phone now and we’re not asking for smartphones. Those who sign up get a telephone call with content of around one minute.” They launched in early 2017 in Dharavi, Mumbai. “We started with simple things: healthy eating, good touch/bad touch, reducing television time... We tried to keep it as close to real life as possible so that they could relate to it.” From Dharavi, the programme moved to Delhi and to Madhya Pradesh. “Typically the people who sign up are mothers. Many of them have had some schooling and work in a variety of low-income jobs like construction labour or domestic help,” says Jeyabal.
They don’t stop with just delivery of the podcast. They track the parent’s engagement with software, workshops and what they call ‘onboarding sessions’. “This also allows us to improve our content and add new topics that parents may be interested in. We also do phone surveys to identify how the calls have helped them.” Ask about the response from parents and Jeyabal’s face lights up. “One mother spoke about how her son has learnt to recognise colours; another told us that she now kept her son occupied helping her in the kitchen. The best was from the mother of a slow learner who wouldn’t talk. After she started listening to our podcasts and using the suggested activities, the child began to open up and speak in small sentences.”
Going through the photos of their onboarding sessions, I find one that is full of men. How many fathers are active participants, I wonder. “This particular photo is from a session at Runaha, a village near Bhopal, where the fathers not just participate but are actively engaged throughout the programme,” says Jeyabal. “While many sign up and participate at our onboarding sessions, the reality is that many are away from homes for much of the day and at times for weeks. When they feel they are not able to practise the strategies we suggest, they themselves refer us to the mothers. We are thinking of a programme that will take their constraints into account and still help them feel involved but it’s still in a nascent stage.”
With over 9000 subscribers now, Jeyabal and Sheth are looking to expand the programme to other states by translating the content into local languages. There has also been interest from foreign countries like Kenya, Mexico and Indonesia. “The programme can be replicated anywhere,” says Jeyabal confidently. “We will have to tweak the content to suit the cultural context but the the basic issue remains the same across the world.”
A typical podcast
The topic is healthy eating and there are four snippets
The first begins with the tale of a child insisting on eating Maggi rather than dal-chawal. There’s a sly dig at how television advertisements can make junk food look appealing and influence the child
The second talks about getting the child used to raw ingredients through games and then involving the child in the cooking process
The next introduces the concept of long and short through slices of carrots and the last is a game. Through this, parents are told how to use food to stimulate curiosity around food preparation and eating.
How Dost Education works
Parents sign up to receive micro-podcasts on the phone four times a week
The content covers different areas of early childhood learning and making a child school ready and focuses on academic intelligence, socio-emotional skills, and practical information about school
The first programme is for 24 weeks and is targeted at parents of children in the two to six years age group