Eleven-year-old Saleha from the rural slums of Chattogram is a student of class five at a local NGO-run school.
At her school, she is taught basic subjects such as Bangla, English, Mathematics and Science, along with History and Geography.
Her favourite subject is History, and for a very good reason.
The History classes at the school are no ordinary classes with a teacher chalking away at the blackboard while the students' stares remain fixated on their textbooks.
Instead, these lessons come as a reason for celebration because the classes are conducted through a Virtual Reality (VR) kit.
This was made possible by the Dhaka-based Ed-Tech start-up called Nerdiz. Founded by Pradeepta Kumar Saha, Nerdiz is Bangladesh's first education platform that has used VR as a tool for education.
As a student, Pradeepta himself was keen on visual learning, as opposed to the textbook style of memorisation. This inspired him to combine the two concepts of VR and visual learning to make education seem less like responsibility and more like fun-filled activities.
"We started with the vision to provide visual learning for all. We began by giving the students VR tours to places such as Madame Tussauds and other historical sites so they can learn visually and by experience," Pradeepta, the CEO of Nerdiz, told the correspondent.
Founded in 2018, Nerdiz operates online, through their website with free content, and also physically, by going to schools with their VR learning kits.
While Pradeepta talked about the inspiration behind Nerdiz, he emphasised on his struggles with the traditional, textbook style of learning. Memorisation was something he could never get a hold of.
"I used to struggle a lot in school, which is why I always had the heart to do something for the education sector in our country so other people facing similar issues as me could learn without hassle," Pradeepta said.
The fact that visual learning is more feasible sank in further when Pradeepta sat for an exam based on a university field trip, where there were no books and the only source of learning was the sites.
This experience propelled Pradeepta's plans further and with some more research on visual learning, he was ready to take his first step towards Nerdiz.
Although Nerdiz has been working with a large portion of the rural population of Bangladesh, the initial plan was quite the opposite.
According to Pradeepta, their phase-1 plan was to work with financially solvent English medium schools who could afford the VR setup.
However, data analysis showed that visual learning works more effectively with the rural population, Pradeepta said.
He explained, "After some time, we realised our services could be much more useful for people in rural areas. They have not seen many of the heritage and historical sites of Dhaka and other parts of the country, such as The National Martyr's Memorial and Central Shaheed Minar. We figured that the rural population would be more receptive to visual learning."
In such cases, Nerdiz bypasses online materials and works with preloaded VR tours, which is transported to the schools in rural areas along with the whole setup.
Before they could move ahead, Pradeepta needed a VR prototype with which the lessons would be conducted. But he did not have any IT knowledge to begin with. How would he do it? The solution was YouTube.
After sitting through six months' worth of VR-related tutorial videos, Pradeepta successfully built a VR kit from scratch.
"Then we started reaching out to NGOs such as Brac and they helped us fund our pilot projects. We started working with them to get onboard with NGO-run schools but the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow our plans to roll out," Pradeepta informed us.
Currently, since schools are closed off, Nerdiz is diversifying with other visual learning tools.
"VR is just one of the tools. We have brought in other ancillary interactive tools and visual learning options. Our plans revolve around visual learning and we want to expand centred around it," he elaborated.
When asked how Nerdiz managed to bypass technological barriers in the remote areas, Pradeepta explained, "We wanted schools to have their own VR labs as this made our work more efficient. Whenever we sent out one of our VR kits to a school, we always sent a specialist who could operate the setup. But we wanted to eliminate this step in the chain, which is why we invested in training the teachers from those schools so they could operate the kit themselves. This is how we bypassed technological barriers."
Nerdiz offers lessons in both national and English medium curriculum. Topics that are VR-friendly are more prioritised for being incorporated with the VR kit.
Explaining their process, Pradeepta said, "Our current learning process is more fluent and immersive than before. We have introduced a few parameters. The topics that are visually more impactful go through a survey through which we categorise the parts which can be better explained via VR. Our second parameter is to take the teacher's input regarding the topics they face difficulty explaining. These are the parts we incorporate with VR."
Nerdiz provides its services to schools on the basis of subscription. While some schools are monthly subscribers, some are weekly. Currently, Nerdiz is working with two English medium schools.
The journey so far, however, has been laden with obstacles, of which the biggest one is lack of awareness.
"From the beginning, we interacted with the NGO school authorities instead of communicating one-to-one with the teachers. Most teachers from rural areas would not be able to grasp the concept of VR. We faced this problem even at the English medium schools of Dhaka," Pradeepta said, adding that even after creating the much-needed awareness, they had to further decentralise the process. One of the other major obstacles was money.
"I started Nerdiz when I was a student with no money. I had to reach out to potential financiers as I initially did not want any partners. Later I pitched Nerdiz to my friends who, too, were apprehensive about it. But I continued working on my own and taught myself to build the prototype," Pradeepta shared.
The most difficult challenge according to Pradeepta was to design a cost-efficient visual learning model. Once the NGOs saw the benefits of visual learning, they extended help.
The student count at the NGO-run schools in rural parts of the country was only 20%. However, after Nerdiz became a part of the curriculum, attendance rates increased drastically.
Over the last three years, Nerdiz has provided VR lessons to over 3,200 students in both urban and rural settings. They have also incorporated many topics with their VR learning setup but Pradeepta is looking into bringing other ancillary solutions to visual learning.
"So far we have worked with coding, maths and science but we want to build an entire ecosystem based on visual learning," he explained, which is why the Nerdiz team has gamified physics, chemistry and other science-based subjects.
As our conversation reached its end, we asked Pradeepta one last question about the financial end of the spectrum of Nerdiz.
Answering this, Pradeepta said, "Honestly, finances were a huge hindrance at the beginning and parts of it have stuck with us to this day. Most people I reached back then were uninterested or nonadaptive. We approached multiple NGOs with innovative business models. But most people realised the importance of technology once the Covid-19 pandemic hit."
He added, "We were getting a lot of projects but we were forced to diversify after the pandemic. Nerdiz has not yet reached that level of monetisation yet, but my e-learning platform 'SkillHub' is what we were able to monetise, not VR." SkillHub is a skill development platform for industry 4.0 skills.
Pradeepta, with Nerdiz, has participated in GP Accelerator and Banglalink Incubator, where they ranked 13th and 10th, respectively.
In 2019, they became the finalists of the Entrepreneurship World Cup and were nominated for the ICT Awards. Nerdiz also bagged the first position at Brac CED Incubator.
Wrapping up, Pradeepta said, "Social causes have brought us so far. Money was definitely an issue but after participating in numerous competitions, monetary troubles were resolved to a large extent."