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Teaching English over the phone

TEAM: Mr Pramodh Rai (second from left) at a Mumbai workshop organised by the Singapore International Foundation. - PICTURE: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION

- TNP PICTURE: ARIFFIN JAMAR

His dream is to help Indian students master the English language so that they can get jobs in international companies.

So Mr Pramohd Rai, 27, created a mobile application with his five friends. The app allows users to listen to English stories and answer a series of comprehension-like questions.

Mr Rai, a Singaporean whose ancestral roots trace back to Uttar Pradesh in northern India, says: "I have been privileged to have great English teachers who taught me the language well from a young age. But not every student in India enjoys this.

"Many are not eligible for jobs in global companies which set up shop in India because they have not mastered the English language."

He believes this is because these kids do not communicate, listen to or read enough English outside of the classroom.

Instead, they tend to use their native language, Hindi.

Mr Rai's app gives children access to an automated system, which targets families in the lower middle class.

"Many of these families have access to feature phones - a step down from smartphones but with Internet access - but not computers," he says.

Three evenings a week, the children will receive calls made from an automated system in Singapore, which narrates stories resembling fables aligned with school curricula.

The system will ask questions based on these stories and the children provide the answers by punching buttons on the phone.

A progress report is churned out based on the three- to five-minute calls and handed to teachers, who can then gauge the child's progress more accurately.

The application, named Jugnuu, which means "firefly" in Hindi, came about during a dinner conversation among Mr Rai and his friends in July last year.

Currently, half of the team behind the app is based in Singapore, while the other half works out of India.

They have also tied up with Teach For India, a non-profit movement led by college graduates and young professionals who teach in under-resourced Indian schools, to implement the programme.

So far, about 60 Delhi-based students have used the application.

Before embarking on this venture, the Nanyang Technological University graduate, who has a double degree in business and computer science, worked as an analyst in an investment bank.

Like Miss Kathy Xu, it was challenging at first for his parents to understand why he would ditch his well-paying job to be a social entrepreneur.

But they have since come around and now support the business, which he kickstarted with a few hundred dollars out of his own savings.

While Indian students receive the call for free, Mr Pramodh's team bears the costs for the calls, which he declines to reveal.

"Hopefully, in time to come, we can get some funding or investment to scale this to the next level and acquire more users," he says.

"The technical part of setting up the system wasn't the most difficult.

"But sometimes, getting executives in the education field to listen to my idea, and to give feedback or guidance on how to improve what we are doing, can be tough."

Despite that, this articulate and feisty lad takes the criticism in his stride.

"The questions keep me going," he says.

"When people cast doubt on the feasibility of the app or other parts of my team's strategy and plan, I get motivated to seek answers and solve problems."