OnnoRokom Pathshala: An online learning platform that promotes depth and understanding in the age of shorts

April 9, 2023

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In 2000, online learning was not a thing in Bangladesh. OnnoRokom founders Mamudul Hasan Sohag and his co-founders started a shadow education aka coaching center in Dhaka called Udvash for students of class 9-12, primarily science students, with an ambition to promote understanding and deep learning over root memorization, which was (is) the norm at the time.

The center would soon capture the imagination of parents and students alike for its unique approach to teaching. Udvash initially started with academic coaching for students in classes 9-12.

After its initial success, Udavsh eventually expanded. It has since introduced courses for several K-12 classes, SSC, HSC, and various college, university, and medical admission tests. Udvash has also expanded country-wide. Today, Udvash is one of the largest shadow education institutions in the country with over 67 branches throughout the country and over 21 exam centers. And it runs 18 different programs.

When Udvash started in 2000, there was no digital platform offering free online learning opportunities. Quality education materials were relatively hard to access. Udvash founders were mostly driven by their vision to provide quality education. Udvash founders themselves were students at the time, mostly BUETians and they wanted to help students learn better. They also wanted to establish Udvash as a different educational institution. They were always looking for ways to help students learn better. They were young people with existing new ideas about education. They wanted to teach and experiment. When you are young you want to change the world. The business was never the only preoccupation of the Udvash founders. They wanted to change education as well.

This led to a fascinating idea and the predecessor of OnnoRokom Pathshala, a school in a CD, was born. There were no online learning platforms in those days. But CDs were widely popular. CD was the storage and carrier for digital movies, music, and everything thing digital in those days. Udavsh founders wanted to record their lectures. Students also wanted to have recorded lectures so that they could listen to them at home and practice. That led to an interesting solution to further aid in the learning process of students — Udvash teachers would record their lectures on CDs and students can copy and distribute them for free.

Udvash teachers started to record the lessons on CDs in the classroom and separately and distribute the CDs to students for free. When pen drives came along to replace CDs, it becomes the central platform to distribute Udvash recorded classes. Udvash teachers would record the classes and students would use pen drives to copy and share. This was a minor revolution at the time. The recorded Udvash learning materials would gain excellent popularity among students.

That small initiative has since evolved. The CD gave way to pen drive and pen drive eventually to digital platforms such as Youtube. Today, that small initiative is known as OnnoRokom Pathshala. Run on Youtube, it is one of the earliest free Youtube learning channels.

A counterintuitive approach

Businesses operate with certain inherent principles. You create something of value, you want to make money out of it. You don’t want other people to get it for free. It is more so in educational spaces. I have created some learning materials, why should you get them for free? If you are a coaching center, you sell teachings/lectures. If you make your lectures free, it doesn’t make sense for your business. To many people, it may look like self-cannibalization for no good reason. It could create challenges for your business. Students who could get their hands on your free lectures may decide not to take your paid services. The perception is that if people could get your content for free then they wouldn’t come to your coaching center or take your service.

To that end, if you record some lectures, you would want them to distribute only to your students and discourage your students to share them with others. It would have made perfect sense if Udvash had done the same thing. Most coaching centers would do that. But like many other things, the Udvash team made some counter-intuitive rules. But Udvash founders were not worried about these things. They were passionate educators. Far more driven by their passion to teach and help students learn. So they did the opposite.

Instead of prohibiting students from sharing these recording lectures, they made sharing a condition to get access to these lectures. The team Udvash told students that they could get these CDs/recorded lectures for free but on one condition — they would have to share them with other people. Copying the CDs and sharing them with other students were encouraged.

This was an unusual move. While it might appear counterintuitive but it helped Udvash to grow faster and attract more students.

Free learning materials of Udvash traveled far and wide. Students and parents could see the difference in teaching styles and they came to get more of it from Udvash.

Becoming a destination for in-depth learning

The initiative continued throughout the early days of Udvash. As Udvash grew, more teachers joined, and the program expanded.

When the internet and Youtube started to gain popularity, the Udvash team started to share videos online — yet another evolution for the program from CD to online. In the following years, the program became a full-fledged CSR program of OnnonRokomo Group and became what is OnnoRokom Pathshala today.

OnnoRokom Pathshala is a free online school offering in-depth lessons for classes 9 to 12 students and university admission test preparation. Mostly hosted on Youtube, OnnoRokom Pathshala is one of the earliest online learning platforms in the country. In those early days, there were few free online learning materials. The platform quickly gained popularity. With its popularity and growth, the platform has also seen growing student participation. Before mostly the Udvash team made the videos, now students also request videos and lessons turning it into a two-way platform.

Over the years, OnnoRokom Pathshala has evolved into an online school that provides quality education for free through social media such as Youtube and Facebook.

Affordable quality education is a pervasive challenge in Bangladesh. Particularly for students who live in rural and suburban areas across Bangladesh. Onnorokom Pathshala makes quality education accessible to them. Hosted on Youtube, students from anywhere in the country can access it for free.

There are many free online/Youtube education channels today. Some of these channels are highly popular and are tremendously useful for students. Similarly, many of these channels face certain challenges such as incomplete lecture series, short videos, and sometimes poor quality.

OnnoRokom Pathshala, however, has kept its DNA intact. It regularly publishes in-depth lectures on K to 12 and admission test topics. Best teachers from the OnnoRokom education universe that include Udvash, Unmesh, and several other initiatives, publish lectures on the OnnoRokom Pathshala channel. All lectures are free and accessible to anyone. OnnoRokom does not run any ads on these lectures.

The other important feature of OnnoRokom Pathshala is that lectures published on the channel are in-depth and long-form. This is again a fundamental difference with the prevailing tendencies in learning, where short videos and entertaining approaches to learning get precedence over a comprehensive understanding of a subject.

OnnoRokom Pathshala lectures intentionally choose to educate and make students understand subjects in-depth instead of offering a merely superficial understanding. Moreover, the Pathshala covers each subject structurally and provides complete lectures.

Useful for both students and teachers

As we discussed earlier, from CD based learning platform to a Youtube channel, OnnoRokom Pathshala has changed a lot over the years. One major change is its interaction with students. The platform allows students to request lectures on topics they want to learn. OnnoRokom Pathshala regularly reviews the comments on the channel for lecture requests. Requests are then turned into videos based on the demands of the students.

The platform has proven effective for many students who live outside Dhaka or can’t access expensive coaching center services.

OnnoRokom Pathshala’s former co-ordinator Muhammad Rasel Sonnet says the Pathshala team regularly receives calls from students who express their gratitude and share how the platform changed their lives. Many of these students also want to support the platform by making videos themselves.

OnnoRokom Pathshala team encourages paying it forward. It asks students who watch the channel to help other students by sharing what they have learned.

The other interesting group of audience OnnoRokom Group serves is the teachers. Teachers from across the country use OnnoRokom Pathshala to deepen their understanding of different subjects. This makes sense. In many instances, for teachers who live outside the major urban centers, it is hard to access quality training and educational materials. Since OnnoRokom Pathshala offers in-depth lectures on different topics, teachers naturally find the materials useful. OnnoRokom Pathshala has also inspired many new online learning channels over the years.

Everything has second-order consequences. OnnoRokom Pathshala has unleased a second-order dynamic that benefits students across the country to learn better.

Building for the long term

OnnoRokom Pathshala currently has over 800,000 followers on Youtube and continues to grow. The entire user base has been organic.

“OnnoRokom Pathshala is part of OnnoRokom Group’s CRS programs”, explains Ratul Khan, an engineer and researcher at OnnoRokom Group who looks after several education-related projects within the company. “The philosophy of the platform is different. We want to continuously publish lectures on relevant subjects for students. These lectures will always be free. At the same time, we want to publish lectures that are in-depth that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The goal is to encourage students to understand a subject instead of merely memorizing it.”

The platform has seen accelerated growth in recent years. Plans have been made to publish more content on diverse subjects in the coming days.

OnnoRokom Group has created a dynamic approach to running the platform. Contents get made on regular credence using the existing resources of OnnoRokom Group. Since the company runs a number of educational ventures, it is not a challenge to produce relevant materials.

OnnoRokom Pathshala receives equal treatment when it comes to preparing the materials, resource allocation, and attention. Quality always gets top priority. The company says Pathashal materials are often made by the best teachers in the OnnoRokom universe.

Sometimes supply can dictate demands

Free online teaching materials are no longer a novelty in this age and time. Online platforms like Youtube are littered with various types of content. Most of these are free. But it is also true that a majority of them are promotional, some are of poor quality and most of them are infested with internet ads, and yet others are incomplete. Consequently, these free videos and lectures rarely help students and teachers who need structured help.

OnnoRokom Pathshala fills this gap well. It goes deep, provides in-depth lessons, and is relatively structured for students. Moreover, students can request lessons on topics that they need help with.

The other interesting development is the rise of short-form content, which is now called Youtube Shorts similar to Tiktok videos. Short videos are interesting. Many people argue that short videos are more relevant today. People have a declining attention span and we must fit our teaching to that.

While data about declining attention span might be relevant in many instances, it is a limiting and pessimistic view to adopt that we need to feed people things that are less ideal for their growth, particularly students.

Short videos may serve the need for a shorter attention span, but they don’t allow someone to go deep into a topic. It does not help develop a deeper understanding of subjects important to understand deeply than otherwise. More dangerously, they can potentially cause lasting damage to our ability to pay attention for a long period. Whereas if we are to solve important problems, we must be able to pay deep attention and work on a problem for a long time.

OnnoRokom Pathshala is a refreshing counter to the prevailing narrative that the solution for someone who is addicted to cocaine is simply more cocaine. That we should prepare bite-size educational content and prioritize entertainment while making them because that is the norm of the day is not only a faulty logic but also a dangerous route that would never allow our kids to train their attention muscle.

It is also a testament that long-form, in-depth educational videos work. Students and teachers alike still seek out learning materials that go in-depth into a subject and offer a complete understanding. It also proves the fact that it is not demand that should always define supply, sometimes supply dictates demand.

We need more initiatives like OnnoRokom Pathshala that promote understanding over root memorization and mere entertainment. Because understanding is the ultimate purpose of education.

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