24 October 2015 10:26:12 IST

Galvanising learners with the right test prep tools

The duo of Pavithra and Ram Srinivasan have evolved self-paced online test prep courses

When Swaminathan, a software engineer in a leading IT MNC, decided to broaden his career horizon by doing his MS in the US, the main hurdle standing in his path was the GRE exam.

Attempted by around seven lakh candidates in more than 1,000 centres spread across 160 countries, the four-hour long Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, is a mandatory requirement for anyone wishing to do their MS or PhD in the USA.

As Swami did his research, he stumbled upon numerous resources to help prepare for the exam, ranging from inexpensive books, CDs and online tools, to expensive coaching classes and exclusive private tutoring. Swami was clear that he wanted coaching delivered by world class faculty, but at a schedule that would be convenient for him. He also wanted individual attention, without the exorbitant cost of individual tutoring. Swami avows that he received all this and more at Galvanize Test Prep .

What and who

Founded by Pavithra Srinivasan, an alumna of Stanford University, Galvanize has an interesting story behind it: “Culturally, we Indians tend to place a lot of emphasis on education, but in reality, all it translates to, is scoring more marks by memorising the ‘important’ questions. However, the deepest learning I got while at Stanford was that I learned how to learn. And it was while teaching and tutoring to support myself as a graduate student that I also experienced the joy of teaching and the powerful impact it can have on students.”

After a few years of working in the Bay Area and in India, both at start-ups and MNCs in a variety of sectors, Pavithra decided to combine her skills in technology and product design with her passion for education, and founded Entrayn Education Technologies (P) Ltd. With angel investment from Dr R Kumar, MD of Navin Housing & Properties (P) Ltd, Chennai, Entrayn first launched its online teaching and learning platform at www.entrayn.com . Fulfilling the promise of “Launch your Online Academy in 15 minutes”, the platform was originally targeted at coaching institutes and individual tutors. However, despite multiple successful online academies on the Entrayn platform (TMS Sir’s Online Math Academy, Priya Krishnan’s Academy for Spoken English, Jayaram’s Online NATA Coaching, to name a few), it was a challenge to sustain B2B sales of a high-end online technology platform to this type of audience.

Pavithra Srinivasan

Ram Srinivasan

Enter Ram Srinivasan, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad with 15-plus years of experience scaling multiple start-ups. Interestingly, Ram and Pavithra first met online as a result of a matrimonial alliance search conducted by their families: “Both of us had expressed in our online matrimonial profiles that we were keen on start-ups, so when we first started talking to each other, our conversations were filled with the journeys and challenges of entrepreneurship. Things ‘clicked’ and before we knew it, we had tied the knot!” says Ram. And after that, it was a short step to recognising the complementary skills that they brought to the table in terms of product development and business strategy. Pavithra extended an offer to Ram to be the CEO, which he readily agreed to.

Here’s a heart-to-heart chat with the management team about how their business has evolved.

Ram, what was your first major decision as CEO and why?

Ram : After surveying the main strength of the platform, i.e., algorithms that monitored students’ progress and provided in-depth personalised insights for each student on how to improve his/her performance, I took a bold step to pivot the company from a primarily B2B model to a B2C one, thereby launching GRE courses under the brand, “Galvanize Test Prep”. This decision proved a great fillip to the team, many of whom were alumni of institutes like IIT Madras, IIT Bombay, and IIM Lucknow and thus had already done their share of personally cracking competitive exams like IIT-JEE, CAT and GRE. Passionate about innovating on pedagogy and analytics, the entire team was itching to try out its ideas directly on students — something a B2C model would enable them to do much better than a B2B one.

On what basis would you evolve your business strategy going forward?

Ram : I firmly believe that a company should evolve its business strategy by adapting itself in ways that best serve the needs of its customers. Let’s take the example of Galvanize Test Prep: When we launched earlier this year, students from as far as Puducherry and even Bengaluru would sincerely travel to attend our face-to-face classes at Chennai every weekend, solely because they wanted to be taught by the best. This motivated us to launch our live virtual classrooms a few months ago.

These online classes were well appreciated by students not just from diverse parts of the country such as Mumbai, Gurgaon, Bengaluru, Vizag, Lucknow and Agartala, to name a few, but also from those outside India. Soon, we started to receive requests for pre-recorded video lessons from busy working professionals, and students who wanted flexibility in terms of both time and location. So currently, we’re working on creating self-paced online courses that will be as effective as, if not more than, live classes.

How can a self-paced course be more effective than a live class led by a teacher?

Pavithra : It might appear counterintuitive at first, but after years of high quality teaching experience, we can vouch that a typical classroom for any entrance examination is bound to comprise students of diverse skills and abilities. Thus, a brisk teaching pace does injustice to students who need help the most, while a slower pace is a drag on the smarter students — and finally, a teacher is forced to teach to the hypothetical “average student”, who may not even be present in the classroom! On the other hand, every student benefits to the fullest in a self-paced course because the pace of lessons, or for that matter the topics covered, the homework, extra problems, and even feedback, is customised to the needs and abilities of each student. Besides, students tend to be shy when it comes to asking doubts in the presence of their peers, but they quickly drop this hesitation in a self-paced context. Finally, to help students adhere to their individual study plans in a disciplined manner, we offer frequent counselling, motivation, and even the occasional chastisement, which collectively ensure that students get the best out of their learning.

That sounds ideal from the student point-of-view, but how can providing such deep levels of customisation make business sense?

Ram : Everyone thought that “mass personalisation” was an oxymoron until Dell delivered custom computer configurations at scale. Today, millions of people conduct personalised searches for life partners on a single online platform. Similarly, with the right combination of “Pedagogy, Technology, and Analytics”, something which is imprinted into the very DNA of our company, it’s eminently possible to deliver personalised learning at scale. Exactly how this is achieved, however, is our “secret sauce”, i.e. intellectual property, that also significantly increases the value of the company itself.

Have you ventured into mobile learning?

Pavithra : “Mobile Learning” is indeed a buzzword nowadays, and not without reason: Today’s learners are extremely busy but at the same time, are stuck to their phones. The real challenge is to bring about an effective “learning + practice + testing” experience on the phone. We decided to start by focusing on the practice aspect and developed our Android app, “GRE Quant & Verbal Questions” by Galvanize Test Prep. We found that once our students had the option of practising for the exam from their phones, their adherence to practice exercises improved! With zero marketing cost, our mobile app gained a few thousand installs in just four months, not just from India but from across the planet. It’s immensely satisfying to our entire team, especially our technology team, that our GRE app has consistently maintained a rating of 4.5+ out of 5 stars, highest among all GRE prep apps out there for Android! It motivated us to quickly roll out a version for iPhones as well, so you can watch out for our iOS launch later this month!

What are your future plans?

Ram : We are in the process of expanding our offerings to other competitive exams. Both the “study abroad” segment, as well as the numerous Indian entrance exams, holds a lot of potential.

How would you measure success?

Pavithra and Ram : At the individual level, we are successful when we deliver the maximum possible “learning delta” i.e., score increase, for every student. At the business level, this needs to be delivered in a cost-effective and profitable manner. We know that as we continue to deliver superior learning delta in a scalable manner, the rest will take care of itself. At the end of the day, what keeps us going is the fact that once they enrol for our courses, our students invariably tell us, “Before joining Galvanize, we had no idea that studying for a test could be so different, refreshing and effective!”

(G Ramachandran, is a 2015 batch alumnus of IIM-A, and a Coimbatore-based entrepreneur. He is also State IT Wing Joint Secretary of AIADMK party)