Now that the dust of Covid-19 pandemic has settled, adults have begun returning to their offices. The children are finally making their way back to school. We can finally forgo Zoom meetings for a more human experience. However, that does not mean Zoom or online-based platforms have become obsolete yet.
In fact, one of the few positive outcomes of a global pandemic was the innovation in technology it led to. In Bangladesh, it forced more people to adopt more digital solutions.
While teachers struggled to retain their students in online classes, education technology or Edtech flourished. Parents were more open to enrolling their children in an edtech platform.
For Zareen Mahmud Hossain, the founder of the edtech platform CholPori, it is a game-changer that can help mould the next generation of Bangladeshis. CholPori is an online primary school learning tool. It provides supplementary tools to help young students learn in a fun, interactive way, alongside our national curriculum. Anyone can choose one of their three offered plans and sign up online.
As she recounted the story of CholPori's founding, it became evident that the desire to change the way we teach students was what fuelled her.
Zareen is a Chartered Accountant by profession. When she started her own accounting firm with her partner in 2013, she was struck by the small number of female CA's in Bangladesh. It was difficult for women to even make it into the field, owing to the smaller network they had as opposed to their male counterparts. So, she took matters into her own hands.
"I wanted to create a network of our own, which women could use. I got together 80 female leaders from different professions across three generations on Women's Day in 2016. It included stalwarts like Khushi Kabir, ActionAid's Farah Kabir and Advocate Sultana Kamal. As we went around to hear from each participant, I began to realise that each generation had a different type of struggle and journey.
These women had done outstanding work but we wanted to find a way to take these stories to a larger platform where they can inspire others. We understood that the success of every generation of women was built on the shoulders of the prior generation," Zareen explained.
That inspired the founding of HerStory Foundation, an organisation that aims to teach young children about inspiring role models from our history. In 2017, they launched their first book at Dhaka Lit Fest: "Her Stories – Adventures of Supergirls". In 2019, HerStory launched a fellowship named CholPori HerStory.
Essentially, they trained university students from Independent University Bangladesh (IUB) to read HerStory's books to 10 under-served schools around Dhaka. The aim was to encourage children to take up reading. What they noticed during the fellowship process was that children had a noticeable learning gap – they lacked the reading skill level they should already have at that grade level.
It was here that the idea behind CholPori came into being.
"We wanted to create a platform and provide content to children of Bangladesh at primary level to enable them to attain grade-level competencies, social emotional learning and future readiness," she said.
How the world of CholPori works
The content on CholPori's platform is only geared towards the 4th and 5th grades. There are three sections on the platform and each offers a different medium of learning. In the 'Pathshala,' they offer animations with narrations and illustrations. The 'Boighor' is more of a digital library, filled with illustrated and voiced interactive children's books. The 'Bottola' is more of a digital recreational zone where children can relax and play interactive games.
Each of these learning tools is introduced by CholPori's own digital characters.
"Each of our characters is designed to be inclusive. For example, one of our characters, Robot, is a female maths-whiz – we wanted to break the stereotype that women do not go into STEM fields. Even our books are inclusive, we have sections in, for example, the Garo language.
"Critical thinking is a big component of our work. For example, the English we teach is different in that we emphasise on conversational English. We aim to encourage students by making it fun. Every child learns in a different way. That's our motto, that's why we offer such a vast medium," Zareen explained.
Breaking gender stereotypes is also a big component of their work. Characters in their books are designed to help achieve this. That being said, as Zareen explained, it is not done to preach, but rather to normalise certain ideas.
At the moment they offer complete material for English and Maths, Bangla is also included, but they only offer reading materials. They also provide level reading, a rarely used assessment tool in Bangladesh. One of the primary aims behind CholPori was to encourage students to learn, but in a fun way.
In the early days, their team was lean; Zareen and co-founder Katerina Don, who is also the Curator of HerStory, were writing the content themselves while building the platform. Now, the content is built and developed by CholPori's team of teachers who have working experience in the national school system.
This is then visualised by their animation and sound team. As a result, everything is done in-house. Even the tunes in their videos are done by their team.
"We have a really excellent team of young minds working at CholPori. We didn't know how big this could get; it started with the idea of just introducing level reading, making some worksheets etc. But once we got started, we realised just how much potential there is. We could make this much bigger," she said proudly.
The team at CholPori spent the better part of two years building the platform and making the materials. Even though the testing was extensive, in 2021, they held both physical and online watch parties where children from Dhaka, Chittagong, Tangail, Barisal and Gazipur participated.
CholPori fully launched in April of 2022 and they currently have 3000 registered students.
Big plans for the future
The future plans for CholPori have been carefully mapped out and they have several long term expectations.
Their more immediate plan is to roll out their platform in schools so teachers can utilise their tools for the classroom. Though their current aim is to focus on urban areas, namely Dhaka, Narayanganj and Gazipur, they plan to expand all over the country. At the moment, they are physically working with 15 schools.
"When we pitch to the schools and the principals see the quality of our content, they become very eager to work with us," Zareen said. "Long term, we would like to work with the government and help adopt these tools for public schools."
As an entrepreneur, Zareen, along with her inner circle, have so far self-funded CholPori. Now that the launch is underway, they are seeking outside investments in the form of grant and equity funding. Though they have just started the process, they are expecting to secure funding by the end of this year.
"We want to build the next generation of independently minded citizens, equipped for a future world they can adapt to. These changes won't happen overnight. So it's more of a long term vision for us." Zareen said.