Can an ed-tech company improve the lives of Armenia’s children? Suren Aloyan, the founder of Dasaran, has proven that it can. His company has leapfrogged traditional models of education, using the latest technological innovations to create Armenia’s first comprehensive e-Learning portal.
In the past seven years, Dasaran has virtually connected all 1,501 schools (including principals, teachers, students and parents/guardians) in Armenia and Artsakh, an unrecognized republic to the east. With their team of just 37 staff, they’ve catalyzed an overall “13% improvement of performance and 22% decrease in truancy among school students.”
Equalizing access to education
Armenia is a rugged and beautiful country, filled with dramatic plateaus and soaring mountains, many of which are extinct volcanoes. With an average elevation of 5,900 feet, highland villages are tucked into steep valleys, and ancient monasteries occasionally appear perched upon hilltops.
Yerevan, the country’s bustling capital, lies near the eastern border with Turkey. With 1.06 million city residents, it contains more than a third of the national population.
|Yerevan in Full Color by Seroujo is licensed under CC BY 2.0|
Because of this population ratio, much of the development and economic opportunities are centered in Yerevan, which has resulted in the lowest poverty rates of the country. Though this is excellent for those who live in the capital, it also means that the 1.9 million Armenians who live outside of Yerevan often don’t have access to the same level of resources.
A similar pattern holds true for the education system. While students in Yerevan were more likely to attend a high-quality school, “the children from … the remote areas of the country appear to be in more disadvantaged conditions,” as Suren, a member of Impact Hub Yerevan, and a passionate social entrepreneur explained.
This unequal distribution has effects that ripple far beyond the classroom walls. “I believe that the guarantee of a country, the world’s future and prosperity, is a well-educated and knowledgeable generation, and that a strong and prosperous state is built on the foundations of high quality and constant development of an educational system.”
Unsatisfied with the current status of schools in Armenia, in 2009 Suren launched a ed-tech company called Dasaran, to ensure that every child in Armenia could access quality education, regardless of whether they live in the heart of Yerevan or in a remote highland village. Dasaran also serves neighboring Artsakh, an unrecognized republic with more than 151,000 citizens whose official status is still in dispute.
|Suren Aloyan, Founder of Dasaran|
A tech-based solution
In Armenian, Dasaran simply means “classroom,” reflecting the mission behind the business, to “create a ‘huge classroom’ where the pupils, the teachers, and the pupils’ parents could be united in a single platform,” as a Dasaran staff member described recently.
In essence, it is an online tool that facilitates data collection, communication, and access to resources for schools.
This e-learning portal provides “a wide range of services, such as an electronic diary, a gradebook, a secure social network for Armenia’s school students, online psychology and health corners, an encyclopedia, guidelines for university admissions, competitions, and educational gamified content for engaging user experiences.”
Let’s talk data
One of Dasaran’s most powerful capabilities is the collection of demographic and school performance data. Now used in every single school in both Armenia and Artsakh, it has nearly one million unique, active users (943,048 to be exact), including principals, teachers, schoolchildren, and parents or guardians.
This means that Dasaran regularly collects information from nearly one third of Armenia’s population. For the first time, the government can use big data to make decisions about the education system, which “is extremely important from the perspectives of strategic planning and policy making.”
By using a unified platform with standardized metrics, Dasaran can compare schools to one another, allowing analysts to spot patterns in performance. Now, it’s possible to answer questions like: What characteristics do high-performing Armenian schools share? Why are some schools struggling to help their students be successful? Are certain demographics receiving better schooling than others? How can those disparities be lessened?
Streamlining school management
Dasaran has also helped to standardize how schools are managed, a critical step in equalizing the quality of education. This helps schools become more effective, addressing previously low levels of transparency and reducing the risk of corruption.
Principals utilize an online portal that structures overall school management, “providing them with quick access to real-time data on school performance indicators.”
Teachers, meanwhile, use the platform to manage grades and track student achievement. They can set homework assignments, communicate with parents, and check on how their students are doing.
This did not happen overnight. Since all of Dasaran’s tools are online, they initially faced two significant barriers: lack of internet and low levels of computer literacy among school staff. Over time, however, Suren and his team have overcome these obstacles, increasing the “computer literacy level among teachers from 5% in 2010 to 81% in 2016.”
Achieving such a substantial outcome was a challenge considering that 43% of Armenia’s teachers are over 51 years old. Dasaran started by conducting computer literacy trainings with all38,000 of them. Nowadays, the company continues to organize at least two annual trainings for their 1,501 school operators. These representatives for the platform then facilitate local teacher trainings to pass on the new knowledge and information to every school.
A library of creative educational tools
The final key element of equalizing access to education is ensuring that teachers have the same resources, regardless of their location.
To solve this, Dasaran is continually adding to a database of educational tools and materials. Utilizing the data mentioned earlier, they are able to pinpoint specific groups with educational needs that are not currently addressed, and provide resources to meet those needs.
For example, they have introduced tools that boost “learning new media skills; setting and reaching goals; being entrepreneurial, innovative and professional; and social and professional collaboration.”
Since most of these tools are made for kids, they wanted to make sure they were also fun and engaging. So, they turned them into games. Currently, their database includes more than 50 unique games that “encompass a wide knowledge base and combine interactive and alternative education with equal learning opportunities for all users.” Students can even compete with one another while playing the games, boosting participation.
In addition to traditional subjects, some of their content promotes social justice and human rights, so that students may learn about how to be good citizens, both in their home country, and as citizens of the world.
New horizons for Dasaran
As Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist famously said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Dasaran has certainly proven this to be true.
In addition to the improvements in school performance and significantly reduced truancy rates, they’ve noted that students have “a greater enthusiasm about learning,” parents are more engaged in their children’s academic lives, and teachers are increasingly collaborating with one another.
In light of these successes, Dasaran is exploring the expansion of their services to other developing countries.
This growth will not be without its hurdles, however. Internet access and computer literacy, as mentioned earlier, will be a major factor to consider in any country Dasaran considers. The biggest barrier, though, may be bureaucracy, including “ the initial visibility and exposition of Dasaran to the State authorities and state-decision-makers of the target developing countries.”
Yet, Suren is confident that these challenges can be overcome, given time, effort, and strategic implementation.
As Dasaran grows, they look to the Impact Hub community, which has been a key element in their success. In 2016, becoming a finalist in the Impact Hub UNDP #Accelerate2030 program provided business support and international recognition. Impact Hub Yerevan, as well as the Global Impact Hub network, have been sources of mentors and expert consultants, both of which proved to be important resources for Dasaran. “As Impact Hub has opened new important doors for Dasaran in this sense, we are hopeful that we’ll have their contribution in the future scale-up as well,” explained Suren.
Returning to the heart of the mission
When the going gets tough, the mission of Dasaran drives Suren’s energy. “With a strong belief in the idea that education is the most important foundation for state development and that an educated society is the major driver of positive change towards advancement, we cope with all the challenges on our way.”
At the end of the day, it comes down to the individual level. How will they change the life of the 7-year-old boy in Lorut, a village deep in the mountains? What skills will a young woman hold when she graduates from secondary school in Tsovak, on the shores of Sevan Lake?
Seeing the evolution of these stories is what keeps Suren and the team at Dasaran motivated. “This is the most rewarding job – empowering school students and youngsters to reach their fullest potential and become responsible citizens, transforming the reality in their own communities.”
By improving the schools systems of Armenia and Artsakh, Dasaran has made a positive impact in children’s lives. Through their work, they’ve addressed the following UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):
To Learn more about Dasaran’s innovative education solutions, visit www.dasaran.am.