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Project DEFY (.org) - $500 Self Learning Schools

Enabling Learners to Design their Own Education Through "Schools Without Teachers" run by Communities

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What problem does your innovation solve?

Project DEFY aims at creating choice. Choice is a privilege that lies only with those who have freedom and resources and a conducive environment to encourage choices. Choices may be in areas of learning, domains of professions and ultimately how one leads one's life. We believe that quality education is dependent on creation of an opportunity to make choices - to learn what you want, to work on what you like. Unfortunately, people in emergency situations do not get to make these choices.

Explain your innovation.

DEFY enables creation of choice by democratising the second stage of inequality (assuming the first stage to be 'where one is born') aka education. It tries to bring education back into the hands of the people, so that they are able to create and customise the best education that works for them and their context. This makes most sense especially for contexts where freedoms are threatened and resrouces are scant. We create self-learning spaces called Nooks. Nooks are created >>within<< underserved, isolated and marginalised communities, and are controlled and managed by the communities. They do not need experts or teachers; rather the learners learn using their own curiosities, interests and needs. Nooks are provisioned with laptops, an Internet connection, simple tools for building and lots of trash. We create an environment to foster curiosity and develop a routine to learn without pressure and supervision, but together as a community through our induction programs. Each learner makes projects of his/her own interests together with other, takings inspiration from the Internet and surroundings. These projects vary from Science and Technology, to Arts and Music, to Farming and Cooking. The learner practically decides "What, When and How" to learn. The outcome of such learning is different for different learners. While some may develop their ideas to products or enterprises, others may use their skills to get better jobs or higher education.

Who benefits?

The target group of each Nook is defined by the marginalisation that is faced by the communities where the Nooks is to be setup. In emergencies, there are various segments of marginalisation. Children - who suddenly lose access to schooling. Youth - who find it difficult to work and create a livelihood. The elderly - who do not have places to spend their time constructively. Incoming refugee communities - who face isolation from existing citizen communities. Persons with disabilities, women and girls - who many-a-time are doubly marginalised, already through social structures and lack of access to opportunities. When we are to start a Nook, we specifically look for groups that are marginalised significantly, and engage them first. They start the Nook and later invite others who are not so badly affected. Together they run the Nook, and create their own projects. Also, the Nook brings together people from all aspects and engages them in communication by virtue of sharing space.

How is your innovation unique?

DEFY is completely changing the way learning is assumed to happen. We give the learners complete control of their own education and their learning space. While this builds freedom and reduces the pressure of education, it also creates a deep sense of ownership and responsibility. In exncourages the learners to think about their needs and interests, even from a very young age, and craft their learning around it without being extremely conscious about it. Most other learning models have seeked to improve existing systems by making incremental changes or modifications. Nooks are a re-imagination, with a completely bottom up approach and putting the learner's interests first, yet in the context of the community. It does not remove the learner from his/her context, but creates a free and safe space right within it for the learner to >>creatively express<<. Nooks are customised by the communities where they exist, and therefore fit easily, instead of a rigid franchise.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

1. While we have already experimented with rural settings and refugee settlements, and run successful pilots 3/3 times, there are many more contexts that we have not explored yet. Some of these we would venture into are - Tribal communities: Language and social barriers are among the highest here, and to set the right communication will be tricky, and we are not yet very clear on how that happens. New Refugee settlements: these are highly dynamic communities where a large number of people are in transit. We have not yet seen how a Nook would function in such a situation. 2. Networked collaboration: How would Nooks in different parts of the can come together, talk to each other, share and collaborate, and its impact.

Tell us more about you.

We are a registered non-profit organisation in India, with a small core team with diverse backgrounds, and connected truly with our passion for hacking education and experience of such in real life. Abhijit (Engineer, CEO), Megha (Lawyer, Chf. of Growth), Arvind (Veterinarian, Director), Rajiv (Media, Communications), Graham (Mental Health Professional, Community building). We work only through collaboration with local organisations from the communities that want to create a Nook.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster
  • Prolonged displacement

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

Our experience so far has been with underserved and isolated communties. We have piloted Nooks successfully in two Indian villages and a refugee settlement in Uganda. While severe marginalisation exists in these places from economic breakdown to child abuse to proliferation of drugs, they are different from certain emergencies such as ongoing wars or new refugee settlements, where the people are currently being displaced and are unsettled. These are places we want to explore now.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

While we continue to implement new Nooks in urban slums, underserved villages, ragpicking communities, tribal areas, refugee settlements, we would like to venture with Nooks into areas currently under nationwide conflict or emergency. We believe that Nooks, given their customisability, low cost and community enablement, can sustain in tough situations. One community we are about to enter will be in Lesvos, Greece. Congo, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico are some others we would like to attempt.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • No, not yet.

In-country Networks

Our method of working is usually to receive a request from an organisation already working in a community in need. We then build a collaboration with the organsition, where we take the responsibility of end to end execution and the organisation takes that of fundraising (and sometimes we share this). In Lesvos/Greece, we will be collaborating with Changemakers Lab and Visions to Ventures, and create the Nook together. We are currently trying to involve other partners who would fund the project.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

Project DEFY has existed for a few years, experimenting with self learning. We have also set up three pilots in two different countries and three contexts, successfully. Our expertise in the development sector also comes from the extended expertise of the core team from previous work in innovation and social development.

Innovation Maturity

  • Roll-out/Ready to Scale: I have completed a pilot and am ready or in the process of expanding.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

The core team is based out of Bangalore, India, which is also Project DEFY's place of registration as a Section 8 Non profit.


Website: Articles: 1. 2. 3. Facebook: Nook in Uganda (in collaboration with Nakivart and SINA):

How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

We are very greatful to the critical feedback and the words of appreciation. It makes us understand that we may have not explained the idea in as much clarity as we could have. While the idea has not changed with the feedback, it gave us the opportunity to explain (in comments) the difference in our definitions of core-competencies, especially in emergency situations, where mainstream designs of education may not be of best help, which can be seen in older refugee settlements such as in Uganda.

Who will implement this Idea?

Project DEFY is a registered organisation with a dedicated team of 7 based in India, with a core mission of driving Nooks and self-learning concepts, and taking it to communities that want to create their own nooks. The partner organisation in essence invites, ownes and manages the project. Our role is only in the creation and culture building of the Nook. With 2 staff from DEFY, and 2 from the communtity/partner, we create the Nook over a period of 8 months. The levels of support from DEFY staff varies in the different stages, while those from the community act as founders of the project.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

In our target demographics, we have mentioned multiple users who would benefit from Nooks. For this question we focus on children and youth, especially girls, given the focus of the challenge. 1. On a daily scale, children are presented with inactivity, restriction and boredom; youth with the need to soon earn money when existing/known forms of work have disappearred; girls find double marginalisations, and mostly put under extreme restrictions with no safe spaces to express themselves. 2. At a systems-level, we notice a persistence of marginalisation. It takes many generations before the children are able to properly educate themselves or the youth/adult is able to create adequate livelihood, due to a lack of space and time to rediscover ones' identity and create new skills and ideas.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

We are yet a small organisation. Our intention of taking our concepts far and wide, is by demonstrating the potential of Nooks as proper, yet low cost alternatives to mainstream education (which tends to be miserable in non-privileged situations), and becoming a service provider to other grassroots and development organisations to develop Nooks for them and their communities. This way, Project DEFY as a single organisation would not need massive amounts of money, but rather small fund requirements will be distributed among various partners for their own communities.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

1. In five years, we aim for 50 Nooks in current or recent emergencies, impacting about 20000 individuals directly, and affecting a shift in general approach towards education in such contexts, impacting a further 1 million, through the works of other organisations/ entrepreneurs. 2. The greatest challenge for us is to create greater visibility, and become accessible to other communities, organisations, entrepreneurs and philanthropists working or interested in this domain.

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

We are not very appreciative of competitive or exam based assessments, that compare learners to each other to see the better. We feel that it is rather more useful for the learner to know the changes in her thought, action and choices over periods of time. We have been working on a Self-Learning Evaluation Framework that enables learners to do just that. Extracting individual impact data points, we will measure project outcomes by averaging. Framework to be put in trials soon.

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

To be able to create 50 Nooks in 5 years, we must focus on three areas - 1. Team development: The team will need to considerably grow to handle scale, yet be trained in our rather non-traditional facilitation methods. 2. Partnership building: Since each Nook needs a partner, we must build visibility and establish DEFY as a knowledge leader in Education internationally. 3. Strategic planning: Careful planning of each Nook based on urgency and feasibility will determine our chances of success

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Under $50,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • No paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are a registered entity, but not in the country in which we plan to implement our Idea.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • More than 2 years

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Development / Partnerships Support


Join the conversation:

Photo of Carol Essay

There are various ways through which education can be enhanced particularly in emergency situations. For example, make shift classes can be made in order to ensure that the learning schedules are not disrupted in any way. Moreover, students can also be assigned online tutors who can help with the coursework writing. The link below is just an example of a website offering online tutors and can be used to offer students with coursework writing help

Photo of Carol Essay

This is a great discussion topic. However, it is crucial that teachers make sure that they do their best in ensuring that the students are fully engaged with the learning process. If they are going to provide then with the laptops, they need to make sure that all students are offered access to the laptops. For college students, they can get from experts. No student should have to struggle with the coursework.

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I think that schools without teachers are kind of distance education. As for me distance education isn't for all children. Some students can successfully learn something in this way, but a lot of them need to be in the classroom with other pupils, to have a teacher who will explain everything. I have a son and i know him very well. If he study online education – he won't do his homework. I remember how he joined some online course last year and <a href="">poetry essay</a> were his and i know that he didn't write anything.

Photo of abhijit sinha

Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right. Kids should not be condemned to learn alone in closed room with only a laptop in sight.
However, here kids learn in a physical space with other kids and adults. In fact, they collaborate instead of competing as in usual classroom. As such a far more social learning process than traditional classrooms. Very little time is spent online.
The difference is that instead of having one teacher, you have many - all the people around you who are on their own learning journeys, and those who you learn from via internet. And then you are a teacher for others as well.
Please see the video posted at the top of the write up.

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Hi Abhijit Sinha and Team!

We’re excited to share feedback and questions from our experts with you. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your Idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your Idea. Your Idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

Our expert reviewers were particularly impressed your Idea democratizes learning in a way that breaks down barriers for accessibility!

Expert Feedback Question 1: Human-centered design starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their real needs. We are seeking to support Ideas that consider desirability, feasibility, and viability. How does this Idea measure up? How does this Idea consider user needs?

- Experts shared, “This is driven by the needs of the individual and creates a safe space for their own learning. There is no curriculum, so I don't see this as a replacement for core competencies, but more of a community resource.”

Expert Feedback Question 2: If this Idea is submitted from a larger organization, does it have a sustainable funding model? If this Idea is submitted from an early stage Idea, does it have the potential to develop a model for sustainability long-term?

- Experts shared, “Unclear what the long term sustainability model would be here, no revenue model or clear link to donor funds without a formal curriculum.”

Expert Feedback Question 3: In your expert opinion, does this Idea pass the ‘do no harm’ principles? Do you believe that there may be any unseen or undocumented risks?

- Experts shared, “No issues on this, but we are targeting basic education, literacy, etc., this does not fill that gap.”

Expert Feedback Question 4: Based on your experience and expertise, is this an Idea that you’d like to see brought to life? Why or why not?

- Experts shared, “I think this idea would be best as community center or skills development, but not as a substitute for core curriculum.”

Looking ahead in the development of your Idea, the following are some questions that may be helpful to consider and integrate into your contribution!

- This is an interesting concept to democratize learning schools. How might this Idea clearly articulate how to target young girls? Or how does this model uniquely address emergency situations?
- What support do the nooks offer other than Internet and links to Google or YouTube to help build skills? How is the space made safe for girls?
- Is all the learning self-driven and based on information captured online? How are these spaces made safe for girls?

Join us for Storytelling Office Hours Tuesday, July 25, 2017 from 8:30AM - 9:30AM PST! RSVP at by Monday, July 24, 2017 Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an Idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - August 6 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your Idea on the OpenIDEO platform.

Have questions? Email us at

Looking forward to reading more!

Photo of abhijit sinha

Thank you OpenIDEO team and experts for your invaluable feedback. I will attempt now to respond to the shared feedbacks and the questions asked.

- Core competencies
Firstly, we are very glad that the experts appreciate the democratic nature of our solution. The need for a democratic setup is essential to enable learners to have an education that they need, not one that a system wants to dictate. And this has been the challenge to mainstream education formats/curricula, since they can only offer limited choice. The very definition of core competencies varies based on the context one lives in. For example, the core competencies for a child born in an Indian fishing community may include expertise in fishing, swimming, marketting, selling and calculations. A formally set curriculum such as the Indian mainstream fails to imbibe these core competencies since the learner has no choice in the selection of subjects.
An argument can be made that a learner must be presented with multiple subjects as options that may fulfil need in the future - such as science, art, history, etc. However, then these are not core, and can be created in various ways.

A Nook is combining together needs and interests. Needs are what determine core competencies one may require to survive and thrive, whereas Interests are what bring that extra that may not seem important at the moment, but may end up defining one's personality or profession. These may not be mutually exclusive either. And since the combination of Needs and Interests of each learner will fairly unique in a given learning group, a standardised curriculum such as in mainstream education do not seem to cause impact, especially in "Non-Mainstream Contexts". We feel that Emergencies fall clearly within a Non-Mainstream Context, where the learners must be able to develop skills that will help them survive and thrive in relatively short time.

Yes a Nook is a wonderful community centre, but our experience with users, many who have not been to formal schools, shows us that it enables creation of survival and a thriving life.

We have had learners at Nooks both in the Uganda refugee settlement and in Indian rural contexts, who have been and not been through formal schooling. Both of such groups were able to develop English skills in relatively short period of time, Mathematical and logical skills. The difference is that they do it on need/want basis and not by default, and hence have varying degrees and subdomains in these areas.

- Like most schools and learning establishments, Nooks have operation expenses. However, this is as low as $500 per month in total for 50-80 persons. In comparison, this is equivalent to an junior Govt. school teacher's monthly salary in India. This makes it a cheap alternative to mainstream establishments, while providing a learning system where the learner can choose what, when and how to learn from wonderful educational resources.
The way DEFY tries to go about this is by distributing the fundraising effort, and letting local organisations who want to build a Nook in their community raise funds themselves (with our help). The Nook is then credited to the said organisation. While first year expenses are comparatively high (about 12-15k USD), the following years the expense goes down to about 6k USD. We ask the inviting organisation to raise enough for year 1, and then commit for the next 2 years until the Nook is able to generate its own funds through developing local business and entrepreneurship, or though developing itself independently as a non-profit with a donor base. The DEFY team is there to help in this regard. Since the Nook must recover about $500 to be able to run itself, it is not impossible to create self-sustainability. Hence, ideally a Nook will need only three years of funding (a total of about 25k USD) and then be able to finance itself, through various means that come out of the comunity's own need to survive. The Nook developed in Uganda is now a registered organisation, and has its own donor base, while also being able to sell art, shoes and mannequins.

[Response to questions in the next comment below]

Photo of abhijit sinha

"This is an interesting concept to democratize learning schools. How might this Idea clearly articulate how to target young girls? Or how does this model uniquely address emergency situations?" + "How are these spaces made safe for girls?"
Thank you for this question. We are very glad that the challenge focuses on making learning safe and accessible for young girls. This has been our focus as well, and we have constantly strived to maintain a 50% non-male ratio. We feel that this is best achieved by making girls/women the leaders and pioneers of the Nook. For example, each Nook needs a Nook admin, who ensures the Nook is safe, operational and manages other details (though is not a teacher). We therefore try to have a female Nook manager right from the beginning. This encourages participation and trust from other girls and families. In fact, in situations where girls and women are pushed down in the social strata, we start with them as the first participants, and let the Nook begin initially as an all girls space, and later invite the boys in. This is a general principle when starting the Nook, to start with those most marginalised.
Another important way in which we attempt at creating a safe space for young girls and women within the design of the Nook, is to create a "community communication". It is important the girls can talk to other girls, and also boys and men, and express freely their concerns. This takes time, and we spend a considerable amount of our 8 month long incubation of the Nook on creating safe communication.
Given that one need not use the Nook alone, but can come in with a group of friends or family, all invited to learn like any other, also ensures the presence of trusted persons around girls to create a better sense of safety.

The answer to Nooks' unique fit in emergencies is part of my previous comment. In summary, it is the flexibility of Nooks to enable and encourage the learners to think about their needs and interests, and create an education path that fits the dynamic context of the emergency, that they may be able to develop skills/knowledge/ideas that help them live good lives. This is especially true for youth, who may need to work soon, even before the emergency has subsided.

"What support do the nooks offer other than Internet and links to Google or YouTube to help build skills? "
Thank you for this crucial question. Internet and resources like Google or Youtube are merely tools. They are but an easy way to access information that cannot be accessed within the physical community one is restricted. The same effect can be produced with Books and Skills sharing (or human libraries), minus the speed promised by the Internet.

The real strength of a Nook is in its ability to create a learning community of local people, with similarities and differences, to help each other create personalised learning outcomes for each individual and that for the community as a whole. This is what has been missing from MOOCs, which has led to extremely low success rates - the isolated nature of such learning. Nooks create a community that "shares its problems, attempts at solving them, provides comfort and friendship and works as a unified identity". For Internet is not a replacement for human interaction which provides for empathy and emotion, both of which are essential for developing a personality and a community.

Besides "human engagement" and "digital access", Nooks provide a "safe space to explore, create and fail". Learners are not called failures if their projects don't work, but are encouraged to try more. They may jump between domains as they like, attempt as many times a project as they like, and make things that are probably not meaningful to anybody else.
Nooks, as pointed out in expert feedback, are excellent "resource centres for sharing tools and materials", a "shared space for events and workshops" and a "hub for creative activity and professions". They can also become a useful help-centre, if need be, to provide aid to the community when challenged with an emergency.

"Is all the learning self-driven and based on information captured online?"
The learning is self driven, but not necessarily based on online information. The Internet is just one of multiple sources for information. Learning is inspired through observation, interaction and experiences. Many projects that the learners make are actually variations of someone else's project that has already been made. Many are new imaginations or inspired by a personal experience. Once a Nook matures, we see more that the learner uses the Internet not so much for inspiration but for specific information that the learner may need to complete a project.
The Internet works beautifully in bringing new ideas and skills into the community. However, once these ideas/skills are drawn in they can be learned from a person who already knows it than the Internet.

Photo of Abhijit Sinha

The assumptions on core competencies and minimum education required for children have been challenged many times by great new-age educationists like Mr. Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson, who do believe that children as learners do have a capacity to build their learnings without the need for falling within formal mainstreams and dictatorial pedagogies that restrict curiosities and imagination. We would recommend checking out, for more such philosophies and active examples.

Here is an article on our own work that talks about the possibilities of self-learning as a true alternative -

Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Abhijit, thanks for contributing to the challenge! Would love to hear a few more details about your pilots. What's worked, what do you plan to improve moving forward?

Photo of abhijit sinha

Hello Ashley Tillman ,
and thank you for your comment.

We have done three pilots so far, and have recently started with the fourth Nook (we stopped calling them pilots now :) ). The first two Nooks/pilots were in rural Karnataka in India. The first Nook, in Banjarapalya was started in 2014 and continues to function to date, managed by the local community. Nook 2 was started in early 2016 in Mangalore also in a rural demographic, but one more dependent on farming than Banjarapalya. The third Nook was established in collaboration with Social Innovation Academy and Nakivart in Uganda, at the Nakivale refugee settlement in Oct 2016. Within the period of this challenge, we have also recently established our first urban Nook in Kochi, India.

All these Nooks cater to varying demographics - fringe city workers/labourers, farming communities, shopkeepers, small business runners/entrepreneurs, school-going children, school dropouts, home-makers/housewives, domestic workers, refugees from multiple African countries, people with physical disabilities, persons of old age, etc.

- Creating a Nook
We work with the community for about 8 months when creating a new Nook. We begin with one/two persons who are interested in creating the Nook in the community.
Month 1 is spent in community mapping and understanding the demographic of the community, doing interviews and collecting stories. This month is also used for buying tools and materials and securing the physical space, and for explaining to the people about the Nook to come.
Month 2 is when a DEFY team member visits the Nook, initiates it and runs the Induction program. This program builds a self-learning routine and also helps create processes with the community for self-governance. Many internet resources are shown and lots of projects are built by the learners choosing from these resources and some creatively imagining. By the end of this period, the learners have some idea of things they want to create or learn, and resources where they can begin. The DEFY team member returns.
Months 3-8 are spent virtually connected to the Nook, helping the community maneouver through challenges, handle conflicts and develop specific skills in book keeping and finance management. If the community so wishes, we also help them in establishing an independent organisation and help with any fundraising activities they may want to pursue.

Post this period, the interaction from our end is significantly reduced, the community is mature and able to handle the space. The DEFY team is available on call if a special need arises, but there is not so much constant communication.

- Learnings from the pilots
We have obeserved that people (children and adults) seem to be quite capable of understanding what they need to learn, what skills they should develop in order to tackle their challenges and achieve their goals. Of course this does not mean they predict their learnings for the entirety of their lives, but they do a good job for the more instantaneous requirements. Coupled with tools such as the Internet, an ex-community resource, they are able to also draw inspiration from what is not visible or noticeable within their community.

They made projects in Arts, Sciences, Music, Agriculture, Food etc. They became entrepreneurs or chose a higher education or job that "they were interested in". They never stop learning. Rather they learn how to learn, and are quickly able to build skills that they need in a particular scenario. This ability to "CHOOSE" is important so as to build, as far as possible, a life that one wants and not one that must be kept based on where one is born or how much money he/she has.

We have also seen how different these Nooks turn out to be, based on the differences between the corresponding communities. The projects they do, the outcomes they expect, even the tools they possess significantly change based on the interests of the community. For example, the Karnataka Nooks have a significant inclination towards electronics and technology, whereas in Uganda they are making art and shoes.

I think what has worked is
- creating self-learning spaces "together with" the communities, and not for them.
- enabling communities and individuals to take full control of their learning and the learning space (Nook)
- creating a safe-space for exploration and failure
- bringing communities together to learn, as opposed to isolated learning
- using technology cheaply and effectively to aid in learning and exploration
- and finally, building a low-cost sustainable model for education of quality and context.

We would move forward by helping more and more communities create their own Nooks. We have currently requests from about 25 communities in India, Ghana, Kenya and Greece, who now attempt to raise funds.

Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate Nooks on significant scale, until the concept spreads on its own without Project DEFY.