How a communications app has helped virtual learning in NepalVeda has been accommodating the needs of virtual classrooms for many schools since the start of the pandemic. Nirdesh Dwa, one of the developers, shares how the app is attempting to fill the void in digital classroom technology.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have caused one of the biggest disruptions for formal education in Nepal. As the pandemic grew, the Nepali government attempted to digitise education by providing educational classes on radio and television but virtual classrooms turned out to be the most effective means to continue learning. InGrails, a software company started by Nirdesh Dwa, co-founder and CEO; Sujit Pathak, co-founder and chief technical officer; and Sanjan Piya, co-founder and chief operating officer, started Veda as a communications app to connect educational institutions with students and parents back in 2015. Today, the software solution provides the backbone for digital education for more than 700 schools (with 1.2 million regular users) across Nepal.
Veda is a complete management information system that includes all aspects of school management from operations management, finance and account management, communication and data management, etc. The app has also grown to accommodate the needs of virtual classrooms by implementing Zoom and Microsoft Teams conference call systems. In this interview with Prajesh SJB Rana, Nirdesh Dwa the co-founder and CEO of InGrails talks about Veda and how the app became a response to fill the void in digital classroom technology in the education sector.
How did your journey in tech begin?
Back in 2014, I was working at a tech company in Nepal alongside Sujit and Sanjan. We were all programmers working with international clients at this company, but we weren’t very happy. The company prioritised easy, quick development over service and robust engineering, values that we were very serious about. So on the side, we started our own outsourcing gig.
The 2015 earthquake was a wake-up call for us. All three of us wanted to do something on our own, and in August of 2015, we quit our job and started our own software development company: InGrails. During the formative years of InGrails, we tried replicating the outsourcing model but we had an itch to design something for the local market as well.
In Nepal, back in 2015, smartphones had started getting cheaper and adoption rates were starting to soar. Our main focus then was leveraging this new upcoming technology and providing smartphone solutions. Our very first endeavour was Eatery—a communication app that helped connect restaurants with their clients. Eatery was adopted by many restaurants like Reef, Syanko Rolls, and BurgerShack, but we eventually decided that it was not sustainable. While developing Eatery, we were also parallelly working on a communications solution for the education sector, which eventually became Veda.
Veda today is used by more than 700 schools across Nepal. What was the initial development process like, and what constituted such growth?
We’ve been developing Veda for four years, and we started work on it around 6-7 months after starting InGrails. Initially, we envisioned Veda to be a simple communications app that connected educational institutions with students and parents. Back then, SMS was expensive and we saw the need to make communication affordable and accessible and Veda was a response.
We started with research into scholastic needs and started conceptualising our product to meet local needs. In terms of accessibility, we figured that we had to focus on smartphones. The development process for us started at developing user personas for potential users and conducting focus group studies with teachers, parents, children, and the management. We also ran intensive beta testing on schools after development.
Veda’s growth has been very organic. From a simple communications app we’ve grown into a complete school management system. We never envisioned Veda to be an app children use to attend virtual classes on, but with schools going digital, we had to adapt. We’ve always been consumer-focused, and try to satisfy the needs of all our clients, and because of this feedback loop, Veda has grown with each iteration.
Would you credit the pandemic and the resulting virtual classrooms for Veda’s growth?
Absolutely! While we were very quick in implementing necessary technologies to support virtual classrooms, our app turned from a supplementary product to a necessity. Schools needed a software solution to facilitate virtual classrooms and with Veda’s track record as a robust school management system, schools were eager to implement our solution. We were experiencing steady growth with around 300 clients under our belt, but the pandemic brought 400 additional clients in four months.
Veda is an app with children as a user-base, what decisions have you made to make the app more accessible to children?
Our clients are schools, colleges and Montessori schools, which include a wide variety of users. Thinking about accessibility, we had to consider not only children but many adults. Digital literacy is a problem not only among children but for many teachers, parents, and administrators, which is why we simplified our front end. We took inspiration from Facebook and its timeline for our design; Veda opens to one unified timeline where all the important events are listed front and centre. Time for a class? Links to the class appear right on the top of the timeline. Results appear on the timeline when they’ve been posted by teachers. School notices are pinned to the top. We have custom priority for events and notifications so they appear right on the timeline when necessary. This way users don’t have to dig inside menus to find the information they’re looking for.
Starting with smartphones was also a conscious accessibility decision, we knew that many people might not have access to laptops, but they have smartphones and because we started with smartphones, Veda’s base on both Android and iOS was strong which helped educational institution’s trust in our technology. Today, Veda is not limited to smartphones but provides a full-fledged web platform experience through school websites.
What measures have you put in place to ensure children are safe online?
The digital safety of our clients is of utmost importance to us. We host our entire cloud-based service on Amazon Web Services (AWS) because of their robust server security. Internally, we conduct annual security audits and our service is also modular, which means that breaches would be contained within a specific module. We can’t guarantee 100 percent security to any of our clients, I think no one can, but I emphasise that we take security seriously and run scheduled maintenance and vulnerability checks. Each additional feature-set has to be pre-audited before we push it to our clients and we’ve also decoupled modules.
There are user-level vulnerabilities we have little control over. We have implemented granular access management that provides only relevant data to individual users. Each user profile on our service can be given access to specific data, and even if data is removed or lost on the central database, we have logs and backups to identify culprits and recover data. We, as the developers, have no access to any school data. All of our maintenance and development work is done on dummy data and then pushed to live projects. We also run intensive training programmes for students, teachers, parents, and system administrators so that they understand how everything works and the importance of data accessibility.
As schools start to open physically, what future do you see for Veda?
Locally, we want to make the app more accessible and push digital education in Nepal. I don’t see a future for digital classes and want children to go back to school—many aspects of a child’s development can’t be provided over the internet. Children need to learn to socialise, understand their community and their world at a more physical level which is why I am not a proponent for digital classrooms. But I do think the educational scenario in Nepal needs to change to include technology. This is why we’ve translated the entire Veda app into Nepali and want to explore more avenues for the app to act as a companion for physical education. Veda, in many ways, has already turned into an essential part of the educational institutions that have implemented them. The digitisation of the administrative process has made school management very easy and I can’t see any institution dropping Veda even if digital classes don’t happen anymore.
But I do want to see Veda go international, and we’ve already moved towards taking Veda outside of Nepal, starting with implementations in Brunei.