A tête-à-tête with people who did not take the beaten road is always a delight; all the more so, if it’s with our alumni. Mr T. A. Sethuraman and Mr Cibe Hariharan, students of M.Sc. Theoretical Computer Science (Batch of 2008-13 and 2010-15, respectively), are co-founders of Jungroo Learning. This is an EdTech startup that helps educators understand the learners’ journey at a microscopic level with the help of AI. The Bridge brings to you an interview with them where they reminisce about their journey, experiences, future plans and much more.
Q. Starting with what is probably the most common yet essential question: The time between PSG and Jungroo saw both of you taking very diverse paths. How did you come together for this venture?
Mr S: After graduating from PSG, I worked at Deloitte for a year. Later, I decided to take a slightly different path and worked with Teach for India in 2016. This allowed me to work closely with students and help in their learning process, but I wasn’t able to assess the knowledge gaps of students from the marks they scored. I figured that in most cases, there was significant variance in the teacher’s understanding of what each of their students knows and the reality. That is how the idea for such a platform came up. Cibe was my junior in college and given that he was working in the EdTech domain in Amazon, I brought it up with him.
Mr C: Yes, I was working in Amazon back then, where my work profile included building EdTech products for the US market. I was well aware of the challenges faced in the field. Concepts such as adaptive learning were still uncharted waters in India and I believed that if inculcated here, they could do wonders to bridge the gap between learners and educators. When Sethu and I got in touch, I volunteered to develop a sample model to help the students in his classroom. The results were encouraging and it got us started.
Q. For a startup established in 2017, Jungroo has definitely come a long way in the past few years. Congratulations on the recent award from NASSCOM! What do you think is the secret behind this success?
Mr S: I don’t see our recognition as a huge success indicator yet because I believe this is just the beginning. Awards like the NASSCOM's AI for Good in the Education sector and the grants from the Government of Karnataka and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) came by because we’re trying to build something new and innovative where education and technology go hand-in-hand. Adding to this, we have a strong team of people who are well equipped with regards to the understanding of the education and technology sectors. Though the awards and honors play a major role in providing us with the much needed encouragement and visibility, we believe that we still have a long way to go in making our dream come true to the fullest.
Q. Most massive online success stories that we have known of have come about with the platform/solution directly connecting to the end consumers. Currently Jungroo’s products are for educators, facilitating their teaching process. Are there plans for Jungroo to be directly accessible to its end target audience, i.e. students, without any intermediary?
Mr C: Yes. We definitely have plans to launch products which are directly accessible to the students in the future. It is a work in progress as of now. Moreover, since the domain that we’re working on is both operationally intensive and capital intensive, we’re focusing more on the low-hanging fruits now so as to obtain the best possible return for the assets deployed.
Q. (contd.) Given that you have worked with underprivileged kids also during your tenure in Teach for India, do you see Jungroo’s products being made more cost-effective to reach the roots, when it is made directly accessible to students?
Mr S: Yes, we definitely want to reach all strata of students, and reaching the underprivileged is also something that’s part of our plans. In fact, we have already worked with them through our association with Bhumi, an NGO based in Chennai. They’re doing great work for children in orphanages and village community centres across the country. We have worked with them in prototyping our products and have taken feedback from around 5000-6000 of their students. However, as Cibe mentioned, while directly providing a solution for the end customer (the student), the focus is on getting stickiness, i.e. building a great product that scales well and also gets ready acceptance.
Q. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is hastily moving toward e-learning methods. How has this impacted the momentum of Jungroo's growth?
Mr S: It has had both positive and negative impacts on the company. Our plan was to reach out to many more schools before the beginning of this academic year (2020-2021). This came to a halt due to the lockdown conditions that prevailed. In a situation like this, the educational institutions’ major focus isn’t on establishing an adaptive learning platform, but on ensuring the smooth functioning of the prevailing system. But on the brighter side, we released a product for subjective evaluation and grading, providing teachers with an easy-to-use interface for the same. The unexpected pandemic is what led to the creation of this product.
Q. Despite living in an era witnessing so many technological advancements, aiding or sometimes even replacing us in activities that were conventionally done by man, there seems to be an apprehension about using AI, especially for a profession like teaching, even more so in India. For instance, the black box nature of neural networks makes even tech enthusiasts wary, let alone common people. How did you gain their trust?
Mr C: Our product aims at enabling the teacher to have a better understanding of the student’s needs, thus acting as a catalyst in establishing an efficient teaching-learning process. It is practically impossible for a teacher to have an accurate picture of the level of understanding level of all his/her students and this is the task that we’re trying to automate using AI.
Mr S: Gaining the trust of our customers was no bed of roses. Our reinforcement learning algorithm did act as a black box and it required multiple levels of elaborate explanation to our stakeholders during the initial demos. The task of equipping ourselves with a simple and efficient way to do so was quite difficult but necessary. Another important factor is to make the consumers see the value addition that our product can bring about. Things are easier when they see it as a medium which makes their job easier in addition to providing better results. We go about elaborating these aspects rather than focusing on the underlying AI so as to make the user feel more comfortable, not giving room to the apprehension about an invasion of technology in any manner.
Q. What’s next for Jungroo?
Mr S: We are working towards building a cutting-edge B2C product. Currently, students access our products through the educational institutions that they’re a part of. In future, we are looking forward to making our products directly accessible by the students. Our next main interest is scaling. We’re trying to find and involve ourselves in more partnerships in order to reach out to a larger crowd with our prevalent services. Another main focus is on building a product to develop the English language skills of students, covering different aspects like fluency assessment and reading comprehension. We are planning to build on the existing prototype of Jungroo Read, and are eagerly expecting a competent product by next year.
Q. Many of us have aspirations and ideas, but bridging the gap between dreams and actually implementing them requires a giant leap of faith. Please walk us through that point of time in your life.
Mr C: In my case, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I was working for Amazon Education when I felt that there were many more impactful things that I could conceptualize and create, but there were constraints in a corporate structure like that of Amazon, in making them happen. The visibility of how the work we do impacts and touches the lives of people is what was missing back then. So when an opportunity came in the form of a startup, it was a natural decision.
Mr S: The change in my career path began when I left Deloitte to be a part of Teach for India. When I was working for Deloitte, I had once taken a 10-day vacation to travel and visit different places. On my arrival after the break, I noticed that my absence hadn’t had any significant impact on the workflow and functioning of the company. This made me think and explore, thus leading my way to Teach for India. Also, exploring uncertainty is something that I always fancied doing. What’s the fun in going about doing something monotonous where there is no room for exploration or growth? I was privileged, financially stable and lucky to have a supportive family, so I just went for it. Because, why not?
Q. How did the environment and mentorship provided by PSG Tech and the AMCS department in particular, help you in your journey?
Mr C: The packages and mini projects that are unique to our department inculcated in us the confidence that, if there were a budding or well-grown idea we’re willing to work on, it can be implemented. Apart from taking me out of my comfort-zone, they paved the way to a lot of self learning and a belief in the reliability of one’s determination to get things done.
Mr S: In PSG, students’ caliber is not judged based on only their grades. Especially in our department, the freedom and motivation given by all the academic faculty and HoD Sir to explore our areas of interest facilitated individual growth. The knowledge-oriented learning methodology in contrast to the widely prevailing mark oriented one played a vital role in my journey.
Q. Share with us some of your fond memories at PSG Tech.
Mr S: I was a day-scholar and I was very close to my classmates. We used to hang out, bunk classes and go for movies together. Furthermore, it also led to me meeting my better-half, which made it more special than it already was (laughs). Even now in Bangalore, we have a group of people from our college who are more than a family. The bond we built back in PSG has gone a long way and I know for sure that I can rely on them when in need. Such occasions with these wonderful people probably didn’t seem so important then, but later down the line, they always stayed and for that, I am grateful.
Mr C: Login, the annual technical symposium hosted by our department, was something I always looked forward to. Apart from that, I was the Placement Representative of my class and the entire process of communicating with the students, giving them the motivation they needed, and organising interviews were the best aspects of college for me.
Q. What’s your life goal/aspiration outside of Jungroo’s goals?
Mr C: The everyday goal I aim to achieve is to be better than the person I was yesterday. I want to try and learn from the mistakes I make today, to equip myself for tomorrow. If I am able to do this, I strongly believe that everything else will fall in place as they’re all nothing but mere by-products.
Mr S: I’ve always felt that having one main goal and stressing ourselves upon it makes it very hard to do the job in hand with a happy state of mind. Being able to 'live in the moment’ and to be at peace with one's inner self is a journey in itself and I’m still a traveler trying to find his way about it. I’ve recently developed interests in spirituality, our dharma, culture and traditions. This is something I want to dive deeper into. Apart from all this, I’ve always loved travelling and visiting new places and I wish to do more of it.
Team Bridge would like to thank Mr. T. A. Sethuraman and Mr. Cibe Hariharan for taking time off to talk to us.